Philly program aims to tackle gun violence crisis with skills training, career opportunities

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As gun violence continues to plague the streets of Philadelphia, one community program is betting that one solution is giving young people hope for a better future.

"PowerCorp, is designed to find young people who have a ton of talent to contribute and just haven't been tapped in the right way," said Juila Hillengas, who is the executive director of PowerCorpsPHL.

PowerCorpsPHL, an EducationWorks initiative with funding from the City of Philadelphia and AmeriCorps, engages disconnected young adults and returning citizens in advancing their lives through service.

"We always specifically accrue 18-28-year-olds who may have had court justice system involvement, court involvement, might actively be on probation and parole. May have dropped out of high school or not try and figure out their next steps," said Hillengas.

Hillengas says the program provides the members with a robust paid work experience that gives them training and opportunities at sustainable career jobs that are available.

In the past, the program produced exceptional results. These results have shown a job placement rate of 90% and a recidivism rate as low as 8%.

But with the pandemic and surge in city gun violence, the program is faced with a list of adversities.

"We're unfortunately not strangers to grief and loss, but the amount of loss we endured has been quite a lot," said Jasmine Oglesby, who is director of trauma-informed care within PowerCorpPHL.

The city has already cut $1 million from PowerCorpPHL's budget by eliminating its Office of Workforce Development.

Also, the 7-year-old program has lost 12 members to gun violence. Six of those members were lost in the last 12 months.

"A lot of our members are living in communities where gun violence is not unfamiliar, but we have seen such a dramatic uptick," added Oglesby.

Despite these challenges, Oglesby says the staff is continuing their work to help their members.

"We have programmatically tried to do a lot with less and try to provide people with the skills that are necessary to move forward in the workforce," she added. "Even amidst all of the uncertainty, fiscal uncertainty, and uncertainty as far as safety is concerned."

Oglesby says in situations where members have been forced to support other family members due to job loss amid the pandemic, financial advisors and lawyers have been handy to help with budgeting and making sure proper unemployment funding is received.

While the program adjusts to remote and in-person learning amid COVID-19, Hillengas says out of 101 students that began the program in March, 90% of the students have stuck with it. She emphasizes there are employers currently hiring for sustainable career opportunities.

Some of these local employers include: Solar States (solar energy contractor), Rodriguez Consulting (civil engineering company), and the Philadelphia Water Department to help with the city's green infrastructure needs.

"We're targeting folks who are coming out of incarceration who are most hard hit by this (gun violence)," said Hillengas. "We know that when you have your financial needs taken care of, you can focus on the rest of your needs."
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