One of my favorite activities we teach in the Life Work Portfolio Course is our “Personal Brand” exercise. The basic idea is that you brainstorm many of the qualities you feel an employer would want to hire. It doesn’t do anyone any good to try to be all of them at once, or even worse, pretend to be something you’re not. The goal is, take some time to really figure out what your true core employability qualities are, and how you can showcase them consistently at the workplace and at home.
When we start the brainstorming, most students have a lot of qualities to put on the board. But there is almost always one quality missing that I end up “giving” to them and that word, or quality, is resourceful. The students don’t always know what it means and ask me to explain. More often than not I tell them to imagine losing their phones—how would they get through the day? Using resources. After sitting for an hour with portfolio class alum Giancarlo Balarezo, I think I need him to come to all my classes from now on and explain about the beauty of utilizing your resources to their fullest potential.
Giancarlo didn’t always feel like the spokesperson for resourceful youth. In fact, as a typical high school student studying at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, he pretty much felt that there was only one option ahead of him- he wanted to work with computers, so, that meant a hefty degree and lots of schooling. But as we discover so many times, how can a youth be expected to concentrate on their college plan when their home life is unstable and there is constant personal friction to wade through? Thus, at a breaking point with his father, Giancarlo did what made the most sense in his mind—he dropped out of high school at age 17 and went out west to Arizona where his older brother had escaped to a few years prior. He summed up Arizona fairly well—“it was hot and I was loading boxes at UPS all day, not fun.” I had to laugh, as a southwest native myself, he nailed the description of the scenery. At this point in his story, it already sounded to me like he had to endure much more than any teenager should have to, but then life dealt him another devastating blow and took his brother away from him.
When Giancarlo’s brother died suddenly, he couldn’t afford to stay in Arizona alone, so he came back to the family life he had so desperately needed to leave. It hadn’t gotten any better, especially now that the family was also in mourning. But, faced with the idea of another son slipping away from him, Giancarlo’s father made one phone call that Giancarlo would later attribute to changing the entire course of his life—he called the Adult Learning Center in Virginia Beach and took Giancarlo down to take the GED placement test. Never a bad student, Giancarlo did well in his test and was immediately handpicked to speak to Lisa Belcher, the coordinator for the Foundations Transitions Program, funded by Workforce Development. As she explained to him, the program would not only help him with continued study for his GED, but also give him the ability to participate in paid work experience, go on college tours, work with mentors, gain career assessment skills, and create and develop a professional portfolio. That sounded good to Giancarlo; that sounded like resources.
In the first two months of the program he had passed two portions of the GED test. He went to class every day from 8am-1pm and was also working locally at Flex Gym. However, when he had enough time under his belt, he was offered a paid work experience incentive at an array of local businesses. What stood out right away to him was a position at the VB Recreation Centers as “recreation ops.” He took on the role and began work that would primarily include setting up and taking down various rooms at the Williams Farm rec center. It was then that he had a realization—he preferred more human interaction then his interest in computers might have suggested. He found himself asking to help out with the Forever Young bus run that allowed him to make connections with the seniors that came to the center for workouts. He liked the type of work more. Because of this desire, he decided to appeal to his supervisors and ask for a different role. They agreed, and he ended up working the front desk and greeting people every day when they came in.
As he told me about this revelation I was thinking once again about a key point we try to make during our classes with students—learn who you are and listen to yourself. So often in the teens and 20’s we switch from job to job, place to place, and it’s all worthwhile if along the way we’re assessing ourselves and trying to really figure out what environments are making us happy and keeping us satisfied. But it doesn’t always happen. It is always gratifying that a student actually practices what we preach. In this case, Giancarlo realized he was happier with human interaction, and so, he made efforts to get more of it on the job. It sounds simple, but I have so much respect for him because I know it’s not that easy for many youth.
Flash forward over a year and Giancarlo now works full-time at the Bow Creek recreation center front desk. He continues to build relationships with the patrons there and he enjoys the work. He has built a stronger and healthier rapport with his family, and his father in particular. He also has his eye on some more resources available to him. He’s researched the city’s tuition reimbursement program and is excited about enrolling in some computer courses at TCC in the fall so that he can earn certificates that will put him on a path to doing IT work. Giancarlo has interviewed for all of the promotions he’s gotten with a not-so-secret weapon in hand—his Smart Transitions Life-Work Portfolio. It remains in his car, he tells me, at all times. He has it filled to the brim now with the many certificates he’s earned, as well as examples of the job skills he’s honed at the rec center. He even says that when he helps interview upcoming youth employment candidates, he finds himself gauging how prepared they seem by checking whether they have a portfolio, or even a start of a portfolio, with them.
I can’t help but smile thinking of how far he’s come. This 20-year-old young man in front of me gives pearls of wisdom that I expect from someone twice his age. He managed to grasp the importance of networks and support far sooner than other youth his age that I’ve met. He talks of preparedness in the face of anything, and he continues to stress to me the importance of resources. And I as I finish my chat with Giancarlo I am thinking over in my head and counting all of the resources he managed to utilize. Lisa Belcher, Workforce Development, the options he had at the Recreation Centers, the Smart Transitions portfolio training from Together We Can Foundation, and now the city’s tuition reimbursement program.
This young man grabbed on to everything that he could because he realized that there was more than one path to the future he wanted. Perhaps his father realized it to when he made the phone call that changed everything. Yet another example of support coming through when we least expect it, but need it the most.
Harvest Bellante, Program Director