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Youth Leadership Program Seeks New Students

HSCC offering provides college prep help, but pandemic has hurt recruitment

By Jason A. Mignanelli
The Tube City Almanac
October 08, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News, North Versailles Twp. News

East Allegheny High School is one of five locally that participates in the Emerging Leaders Program, run by the Human Services Center Corp. in Turtle Creek. The program is having trouble recruiting students due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)

A program that prepares local high school seniors for college and the workforce is having trouble recruiting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Emerging Leaders Program, run by the Human Services Center Corp. in Turtle Creek, still has nearly 40 spots available for seniors attending East Allegheny, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, West Mifflin Area and Woodland Hills high schools, said Leah O’Reilly, director of programs at HSCC.

“One of the complications that we are having with the pandemic is recruitment,” she said. “Normally we have staff on-site in each one of the school districts so they are able to see the students every day and identify potential candidates.”

That hasn’t been possible this year due to the pandemic, O’Reilly said.

Created in 2006, the Emerging Leaders Program offers workforce development and college preparedness each year for 155 high-school seniors. Participants attend a weekly session during the school day that is specifically geared towards preparing them for life after high school.

Each students is paired with a mentor in their field of interest and provided with a full scope of the potential career path. Additionally, the program helps students with all of the necessary paperwork needed to apply for and be accepted into college.

“Often times the paper work is the hardest part,” O’Reilly said. “Many students and parents are not prepared for filling out the FASFA forms or any of the other financial aid responsibilities. The ELP helps students and parents on an individual basis and makes sure that the student understands how to complete the paperwork for themselves. We are also able to locate scholarships and grants that the students may not even know about.”

The program has helped many students obtain college degrees — some have proceeded onto medical or law school — but most importantly it is providing options and avenues for students who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to progress after high school.

“One of the saddest things that I’ve heard is that a lot of the students say nobody has really ever asked them what they want to do after high school,” O’Reilly said.

Mila Hoover, a 2020 McKeesport Area graduate, said the ELP helped her to prepare for college “every step of the way.”

She credited Kaelynn Hillegrass, a youth development associate at HSCC, with helping “with my financial aid, applying to colleges and scholarships and always made sure each of her students were on top of everything that needed to be done,” said Hoover, who is currently studying chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

“Without this program and her I would have been lost, and would have had no idea where to begin,” Hoover said. “I feel as if every school should have this program because it definitely leads students in the right direction for their future.”

She and other students who have attended the program in the past attribute much of their success to the help that they received.

“ELP has helped me a lot through what to do next. I was always unsure of what needed to be done when, and ELP really helped me keep up with what I needed,” said Samantha Robl, a 2020 graduate of East Allegheny. She is currently majoring in math and accounting at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.

One of the major advantages that students receive by attending the program is the focused one-on-one help that they are given, O’Reilly said.

“Often times, teachers and guidance councilors just have too many students to be able to spend time individually with each student,” she said.

Nearly 83 percent of the students who participate in the program attend college after high school, O’Reilly said. The others either proceed to trade schools, the military or a career.

One of the biggest needs that the program currently has is locating people in the workforce who would be willing to come in and speak with students, and potentially let students shadow them, O’Reilly said.

“Even after the students graduate high school and move on to college, the ELP staff continues to stay in contact with them,” she said. The goal is to help students avoid dropping out after their first year at college or university, often for reasons as simple as not knowing how to apply for student aid again, O’Reilly said.

Because the program is partially federally funded, students and their parents or guardian must be able to provide a birth certificate and a Social Security card, O’Reilly said. Although the ELP is for high-school seniors, juniors can register now for next year.

Students must meet eligibility requirements, she said. For instance, a family of two earning $40,000 or less per year will qualify.

Any student who is interested in the program and meets the criteria can reach out directly to the ELP at (412) 436-9537, or apply online.

In addition, local residents who would like to speak to students about their careers may contact O’Reilly at the same number.

Jason A. Mignanelli is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh’s North Hills and a student at Duquesne University. He may be reached at mignanellij@duq.edu.

Originally published October 08, 2020.

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