YOUTHNET is a new initiative launched by the Virgin Islands Department of Labor with the full support of the Administration to help in addressing the needs of our at-risk youth. It mirrors the Federal Shared Youth Vision Collaborative Partnership which has given the charge to state agencies across the Nation to collaboratively develop and implement youth programs that will focus on serving the neediest youth.

YOUTHNET’s vision is to establish an inter-agency, virtual, one-stop continuum of services aimed at increasing levels of self-sufficiency for at risk youth ages 16-24. ”Its mission is to establish a “NETwork” of agencies that recaptures, counsels, mentors, educates, trains, rehabilitates and transitions youth into self sufficient members of society.” YOUTHNET will create a safety “Net” so to speak, if they fall from the system and dropout of school or are otherwise displaced. It will focus on our neediest youth—our high school dropouts. Research shows that in the Virgin Islands on a yearly average, 400 or eight percent (8%) of our students dropout of high school for a variety of reasons. According to the 2000 Census 40% of our workforce have no High School Diploma or GED.

Youths are hopeless and disillusioned, unaware of the resources and the job opportunities available in the territory. They vanish from our educational system only to surface in our judicial and health care system, unemployed, undereducated, under skilled and with numerous barriers to leading self sufficient lives. What we found to be quite disturbing is there is no Territorial Dropout Prevention Plan. Where do they go for help? How do they transition from school to the world of work? To address this concern, the Department of Labor has been working tirelessly to promote strategic partnerships with key government agencies such as the Departments of Education, Human Services, Health, Justice, and the V.I. Housing Authority, and businesses, unions, community organizations and the Workforce Investment Board to create the YOUTHNET system.

The system will be broken down into three separate components: PREVENTION, RECAPTURE AND REHABILITATION. In a nut shell, it will stem the tide of dropouts by creating programs and activities to encourage and prevent students from dropping out of school by providing counseling, mentoring and guidance for students identified as heading in that direction; it will provide a system to follow up on students when they fall out of the system by creating a “Net” or tracking system that will rapidly identify out of school youth in crisis and recapture them in the system; it will provide a system to rehabilitate youth that have multi-tiered problems (drugs, education, abuse, homelessness) by offering opportunities to be educated and receive a GED, post secondary vocational training, apprenticeships, high growth and other employment opportunities.

It will Incorporate the Career Success Standards and other work-ready programs into the public school system to increase the amount of work-ready graduates; and offer training that will lead to certification, gainful employment and self sufficiency. YOUTHNET will synchronize services to operate in one system that will offer youth who have become disconnected from mainstream institutions and systems another opportunity to successfully become self sufficient productive members of our community.

This is a bold and innovative initiative, but a necessary endeavor. We remain hopeful that with the commitment of all stakeholders our youth can have a brighter future.

It is said that “success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” This is especially true in the Virgin Islands where there are several separate Youth Programs to provide safe counseling and social groups for young people. However, many of these youth are not aware of or actively taking part in these programs.

In response to a 2003 report issued by the White House Task Force concerning youth programs; organizations and government agencies like the Virgin Islands Department of Labor (VIDOL) banned together to create a responsive network for disadvantaged youth who are disconnected to agencies put in place to assist them. The outreach initiative YOUTHNET was created in June 2007 to work in conjunction with other businesses and organizations in order to create a sort of “safety net” for at-risk youth ages 16 to 24.

YouthNet is the brainchild of Commissioner of Labor Albert Bryan Jr. who had realized the waste of government funds on duplicate services. For example, although there are many individual programs put in place to help youth in need, the services offered are often redundant and incomplete in relation to addressing specific individual counseling needs. It is through YouthNet's unique compilation of businesses and organizations that a wider range of specialized counseling services can be available in one easy to use network.

Furthermore, it is the program’s hope to counsel and rehabilitate at-risk youth such as children of incarcerated parents, adjudicated youth, those who are disabled, homeless and runaway youth, and those in the foster care system. “If we are successful, Virgin Islanders in school will be able to see a bright future for themselves here and abroad as employees, professionals and most importantly entrepreneurs,” said Lauretta Petersen, Coordinator of YouthNet.

Equally enthusiastic about this program, participating groups are getting in on creating a competent and capable workforce for the future. The Department of Labor is currently working on a number of projects including Project Link which seeks to aid those learning outside a normal high school setting in receiving a high school diploma or its equivalent and preparing for college through a home school program based online. There is also another up and coming project between YouthNet and the University of the Virgin Islands-College Business Residency Program which aims to teach High School sophomores, juniors, and seniors the principles of business ethics, entrepreneurship and professionalism.

Although the Virgin Islands Census taken in 2000, reported that 40% of V.I. workers don’t have a GED or High School Diploma, the discouraging figures can be combatted. The Department of Labor hopes to cut that number in half through a series of initiatives including YouthNet, which aims to get to the root of the problem by preventing youth from dropping out of school while keeping those in school on the right track.

“Customers out of school would gain work experience at other sectors, but the VIDOL would set up the placement. Customers who are at the University would be placed according to their major,” Charlene Hodge Youth coordinator at VIDOL explained.
It is through the process of rehabilitation, recapture, prevention, and counseling that YouthNet extends beyond the school system and into the community.
For this purpose, YouthNet also provides “One Stop” centers in St. Thomas within the VIDOL and in the Mini Mall at the Sunny Isle Shopping Center on St. Croix. Both locations are stationed with staff members equipped to assist individuals in need. The centers also function as places where young adults can have access to a computer network for job searches, information on family planning, signing up for GED classes, or registering for summer jobs.

Though these centers are under construction, there will soon be a center on each island that will serve as a central spot where youth can receive career-building services.

Essentially, Youthnet’s strategic goals operate in accordance with the Honorable Governor John P. deJongh’s directive to “provide workers with the assistance and encouragement they need to develop new skills and competencies over time, both to seek greater opportunity and to adapt to a rapidly changing employment reality and world economy.”

Group efforts like this used to bring about a change among youth shows that it still takes a village to raise a child.