Youth career readiness program sets stage for longterm work success

Keymareeah King’s summer job at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks didn’t just put money in his pocket, but is providing a bridge to future career opportunities. 

The job was part of the Ascend Summer Youth Career Readiness program, which made King eligible to take part in a recent leadership conference. 

“It was a good transition from leaving middle school into the workforce,” King says. “My time at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks enlightened me more about trees and nature. Also, I am able to move into high school with a laptop, too.  I would do it again and would recommend the Ascend summer program to my friends.”

Ascend, sponsored by West Michigan Works!, serves youth ages 16-24 who are not enrolled in high school and want to earn a high school diploma or GED. With the assistance of a career coach, participants explore careers, pursue low- or no-cost training, access support services, and gain work experience. Ascend also provides services to those ages 16-24 who have a diploma or GED and are not currently taking classes for credit at a college.

‘Earn and learn’
The Summer Youth Career Readiness program, which ran June 20 to Aug. 3, offered participants experience working with employers who aligned with their interests and skills. The program followed the “Earn and Learn” model, with participants receiving weekly payments based on attendance and completion of online activities. YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin, Ionia Chamber, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and John Ball Zoo were among the 29 participating employers.

Ascend Summer Youth Career Readiness, sponsored by West Michigan Works!, serves youth ages 16-24 who are not enrolled in high school and want to earn a high school diploma or GED.

Reflecting on the impacts of these programs, employers noted the positive outcomes and personal growth experienced by participants.

"We were very pleased with the Ascend program participant who we worked with this summer,” says Becky Missad, business manager for YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin. “She was so hardworking and responsible. It was also great to get to know her. We are hoping to get her involved in our other youth leadership programs so that we can help her achieve her goals." 
Those who completed the Summer Youth Career Readiness program were eligible for the Ascend Career Readiness Conference, which was Nov. 13-17. The virtual event provided career exploration and skill-building opportunities. Participants also had the  chance to learn from local experts on topics such as financial literacy, goal setting, and mental health.  

Conference a continuation of summer learning
"Enrolling individuals who demonstrated commitment and engagement in our Ascend Summer Youth Career Readiness Program ensured that attendees were ready to learn and primed to apply these skills they learned in real-world scenarios," says Chad Patton, director of development and innovation at West Michigan Works!. "The engaging conference speakers add depth to the Ascend program, providing participants practical perspectives and strategies to succeed in their careers."  
The first hour of each session featured national motivational speakers offering insights on a variety of topics. Highlights included A'ric Jackson's presentation “Destroy The Box” and Duncan Kirkwood's session “Going After Success with Resilience.” Danny Snow spoke on “Customer Service – Lessons from the Mouse,” while Juan Bendana shared his strategies for building leadership confidence. The week's sessions culminated with Dr. Laymon Hicks' talk on overcoming obstacles.

During the conference's second hour each night, national and Grand Rapids-based speakers covered a range of themes. Lasada Pippen led a discussion on finding one's purpose, and EJ Carrion presented on courage in success, both drawing from their experiences as national motivational speakers. Grand Rapids perspectives were provided by Damika M. Houston, of Healing Minds LLC, focusing on the importance of mental health; Iryonna Hogan, from 2 Reach & Teach LLC, who shared her expertise in financial literacy; and Kris Mathis, who brought in his insights on workplace motivation.

The Ascend Career Readiness Conference and the Summer Youth Career Readiness Program were made possible through funding from DTE Energy, United Way of the Lakeshore and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.    

Through its Ascend programming, West Michigan Works! is committed to providing access to youth services across West Michigan, helping young people complete their education and prepare for rewarding careers. Services offered by Ascend include education and training, career exploration, work experience, and support for necessities such as transportation and childcare.

To learn more about the West Michigan Works! Ascend program or connect with a career coach, visit

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