By Ivey Schofield
A nonprofit serving Bladen and Columbus counties is one of the first organizations selected for a statewide initiative aimed at uplifting teens and young adults who are not working and not attending school.
Men and Women United for Youth and Families has joined a group of 13 organizations that make up Carolina Across 100, a five-year program run by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The program aims to help “opportunity youth” – people ages 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in school and are not working full or part time – overcome obstacles exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including unemployment and lack of broadband access.
“Not only does UNC owe our young people the supports and opportunities they need to create secure and prosperous futures, we literally can’t afford to leave any of our young adults behind,” the Carolina Across 100 website says.
Between spring 2019 and 2020, the unemployment rate for people ages 16 to 24 in the United States rose to 24% – largely due to the fact that young people tend to work jobs that were hard-hit by the pandemic, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In the Columbus County town of Riegelwood, home to one of Men and Women United’s two locations, more than 25% of residents live below the poverty line, compared to about 15% statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 3% have a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 33% statewide.
“We exist because of the need,” Executive Director Randolph Keaton told the Border Belt Independent last year.
Since its establishment in 2006, Men and Women United has partnered with local community colleges, food banks, career centers and local governing bodies to provide workforce training, mentorship, disaster relief, scholarships and entrepreneurial development.
In 2015, it also introduced the youth ambassadors program, which gives local children a paid job to learn about advocacy and farming.
That program, along with others like family counseling and life-skill training, is why UNC invited Men and Women United to join Carolina Across 100. The initiative had already interacted with the youth ambassadors, and it needed an organization from the Border Belt region.
“We believe so much in what we do that we were crazy enough to say yes,” Keaton said.
‘We can’t fail’
As a part of the Carolina Across 100, Men and Women United will have access to resources like career counseling, micro-credential training, marketing expertise, technical assistance, local program managers, storytelling techniques, funding opportunities and grant writing assistance, according to the website.
“The things that will help us be successful won’t look like money. They’ll be resources, hours and expertise,” Keaton said. “We have the infrastructure to do it.”
The key to changing the country’s most pressing problems – including poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, disability and lack of health insurance – is investing in the younger generations, Keaton said. Giving them tools and motivation will produce dividends in the end.
“The youth themselves are going to be the change we’re looking for,” Keaton said.
In September, Men and Women United will travel to Chapel Hill to participate in the first forum with the 12 other organizations representing 37 counties – or almost 58,000 opportunity youth total. They’ll share resources and lessons learned to help make each other better in the long run.
“We have to be successful. We can’t fail,” Keaton said. “It has to be a sustainable project long after the money’s gone, and we’re going to have a good time figuring it out.”
Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @schofieldivey