Youth Empowerment Project

Could your business use some help? Check out YEP’s Work & Learn program.

New Orleanian Jack Norcross needed a new bike. His old bike, which he used for most of his transportation needs and which had deep sentimental value, was gone — stolen. So one Thursday morning he went shopping at Bike Works, a program run by Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) on Oretha Castle Haley boulevard.

Through 10 programs, YEP provides New Orleans youth with an array of services. The nonprofit offers high school equivalency and literacy instruction; assistance with transitioning into post-secondary education and employment opportunities; job readiness training; after-school enrichment; academic support and tutoring; summer programming; mentoring; intensive case management; and assistance with basic needs.

They also provide work opportunities for youth at their businesses: Design Works, Thrift Works and Bike Works.

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“A friend told me about this place,” Norcross said. “I like shopping in my neighborhood and keeping my money in the neighborhood. I also think their mission is a good one. Putting tools in the kids’ hands is empowering and probably opens up many opportunities for them. It also helps the community having youth employed and engaged.”

YEP Executive Director, Melissa Sawyer, and two of her colleagues founded the 501(c)3 in 2004 in order to provide re-entry support to youth who had been involved with the juvenile justice system. Their goal is for the youth to build healthy lives, steer clear of the justice system and remain safe.

“Sometimes we take for granted how much easier it makes your professional journey to have access to resources,” she said. “These resources help create a financial safety net. Our youth face an array of challenges. They need their basic human needs — utilities, transportation and education — to be met in order to be and stay employed.”

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In its first year of operation YEP had one program and served 25 youth (age 16-21) with an annual budget of $235,000. In 2016, the organization — the largest, most comprehensive youth-serving organization in New Orleans — reached more than 1,200 youth through programs that operate out of eight service locations.

YEP’s first program, Community Reintegration Program, was the first of its kind in Louisiana to serve juvenile offenders returning from detention facilities. The program is still in operation.

Among YEP’s offerings, the programs that relate most to the business community is its Trafigura Work & Learn (W&L) program. The W&L center is a youth employment program where individuals earn an educational stipend while working alongside YEP staff. They gain vital hard and soft skills, such as customer service, bicycle repair, digital design and computer coding.

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Local companies looking for help can also work with YEP to bring in youth and train them in a specific field. The company provides the education and YEP provides the stipend. Currently, YEP collaborates with almost 20 businesses to employ W&L graduates. One of which is Queork, a local cork accessories retailer that recently partnered with YEP to train youth to manufacture the company’s products. Now armed with a very specific set of skills, these individuals also effectively crafted a permanent job for themselves within the company — a win/win for everyone involved.

Businesses that have partnered with YEP describe the experience as both a boost for their bottom line and something that allows them to know they are making a concrete and positive impact on both individuals and the community as a whole.

“This was a very positive experience for us,” said Lyle LeBlanc, vice president of operation of Entrescan, the sole Louisiana provider of industry leader 3D Systems printers, speaking about their externship experience. “With YEP’s support, it was like a paid audition for this youth. He didn’t have prior experience in our field, but during his six-week stay we were able to bring him up the learning curve. He could now compete with a Tulane grad with a 4.0. It leveled the playing field for him.”

“YEP is the interface,” said Sawyer. “So if it isn’t working, we will help fix it. We can also help with things like transportation and purchasing uniforms.”

YEP has hired more than two dozen graduates of the program for its own staff. The organization offers a living wage, and four youths now have earned full-time positions with benefits at YEP.

“Having our businesses also allows us to help out if one of the youth gets in a tight spot,” Sawyer said. “We can offer them a shift or two at the bike shop or thrift store to help them get through their challenges.”

The challenges, said Sawyer, are everywhere.

“One traffic ticket, one illness or one unexpected $200 bill can be a real problem,” Sawyer said. “Our kids are vulnerable, so we stay connected with them. They are trying to do the right thing, and sometimes all they need is a hand up and to have someone in their corner.”

Roneesha (last name withheld) works as YEP’s receptionist. She started in October 2015 after completing her Work & Learn training. She’ll soon be continuing her education at Delgado, where she plans on studying to become a police officer and eventually a detective.

“Having a job and having money means I can do things on my own,” she said. “I don’t have to depend on others. At YEP they never turn their backs on you. I want your readers to know we are trying to grow and trying to be better. It feels like hope.”

YEP is the largest, most comprehensive youth-serving organization in New Orleans.


A Good Match


Are willing to take graduates of YEP’s Work & Learn job skills training programs for six-week externships.

Would consider Design Works for their graphic arts needs.

Want to organize bike and/or clothing drives to collect bikes to fix and sell at Bike Works and items to sell at Thrift Works.

Encourage their employees to shop at these stores:

Bike Works
1604 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Monday-Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Thrift Works
1604 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Monday—Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

YEP Tackles Education Too

Founded in 2006, NOPLAY is the Youth Empowerment Project’s educational program, providing GED and basic literacy instruction to out-of-school youth and young adults between the ages of 16-24 from the Greater New Orleans region.

As of today:

89 %

of NOPLAY graduates remain engaged in their post-secondary institutions after entering their second year of college.

40 %

of graduates have successfully transitioned into employment opportunities since the program’s inception.

$570,000 +

in federal and private scholarships and grants went to 70 NOPLAY graduates entering post-secondary institutions since 2011


YEP participants were engaged in meaningful job training programming during the summer of 2016.


gained employment in the 2015-16 fiscal year.



Alvinique (21) said in her past jobs she had trouble showing patience and tolerance. “I had an attitude, and I didn’t know how to carry myself.” She knows the YEP classes and the experience she’s gained have helped her make sure her customers are satisfied, “even when they can sometimes be disrespectful,” she adds.

Jaleel (20) is a graduate and a retail assistant manager for Thrift Works. He discovered the program during his juvenile justice probation. Now, he’s found his entrepreneurial spirit and wants to start a food business. “I’ll start slowly with maybe selling juice and muffins.”

Landrea (19) thinks YEP is a great place. “The money I earn helps with my phone bill, and I’m saving for my own apartment. It’s better than sitting at home watching TV.”
Joshua (18) works in Bike Works. His caseworker suggested the program to him. “It helped me with knowing how to have good job interviews and it’s improved my independent living skills.”


Pedal With Purpose

YEP recently held its first major fundraising event on March 26, Pedal With Purpose. The event was a community street fair centered around a series of pedicab races among companies who are sponsoring YEP. The companies raced against each other to raise money for YEP and for bragging rights against their competitors.



Mission: “YEP engages underserved young people through community-based education, mentoring and employment readiness programs to help them develop skills and strengthen ties to family and community.”

Vision Statement: YEP envisions a community where all people have access to the opportunities, skills, resources and relationships they need to actualize their potential.


YEP Administrative Office
1600 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard

YEP Youth Center
1529 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard
(504) 522-5933

Annual Budget: 2016 -17 YEP budget is $3,795,616

Ongoing Partnerships: YEP currently partners with more than 20 businesses in Greater New Orleans, including Queork, Entrescan, Habitat for Humanity RESTORE, SPCA and Rubarb Bikes.

Current Needs:
• A Smartboard for its main NOPLAY location
• Donated bicycles to support our Trafigura Work & Learn Bicycle Shop
• Items for our Youth Center, including:
• Wii and an Xbox
• Various sporting equipment including basketballs, footballs and volleyballs
• School supplies for our after-school program including one-subject notebooks, pens and pencils
• Tickets to local sporting events and other recreational or educational opportunities
• Gift cards for birthdays, holidays and other celebrations

For More Information:
Stephanie Hotard
Director of Development
504-522-1316 x 295


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