October 6, 2022

Omaha teens show skills learned in hands-on summer career exploration program | Local News

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North Omaha’s Village Empowerment Center was alive Thursday afternoon with youthful energy and creativity.

The occasion was the annual Step Up Omaha Youth Entrepreneurship Marketplace and Showcase.

Original hip-hop music played in the center’s auditorium, the songs and beats crafted by Omaha teenagers with expert guidance from a local pro in the music business.

In a kitchen upstairs, frying plantains sizzled, sending their sweet smell into a room warm with the aroma of jerk chicken and bustling with young people preparing to serve the dishes they had prepared under the tutelage of a local chef and entrepreneur.

Videos of teenagers exploring their talented takes on such businesses as cosmetics and hairstyling played on a screen in a meeting room. Nearby, more than a dozen teenagers displayed their original goods and services — from chocolate-covered strawberries to hoodies and driveway pressure-washing — that an instructor had helped them take from concept to product.

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And another group of youths flew drones, demonstrating skills they learned while pursuing certificates in drone operations.

“It was a good experience,” said Gari Heard, 15, who went through a new program in music in this, his second summer of Step Up. Last year, he went through an entrepreneurship program.

What made it good? Co-workers and Step Up staff, “guiding you, pushing you, being here for you,” said Heard, who recorded and helped produce a song this summer with a friend, Juantez Ruffin.

In addition to skills and knowledge he has gained, what does Heard take away from his Step Up summers?

“Getting yourself out there; you can’t just expect things to be given to you,” Heard said. “You’ve got to go get it. You’ve got to provide for yourself. Just keep, you know, have that confidence built up inside you to push yourself along the way.” 

The event Thursday capped seven weeks of hands-on experience and learning for about 70 young people in a program that’s one part of Step Up’s career exploration, job training, internship and entrepreneurship offerings. In all, about 500 youths have participated so far this year, said Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network. He expects about 250 more will participate before year’s end.

Step Up is about connecting young people with internships that expose them to possible careers, said John Jackson, Step Up Omaha director.

“Helping them explore, unearth and define their interests, and see how they can grow and thrive in those spaces,” Jackson said.

The music course was led by Lewade “Big Wade” Milliner, a musician, producer and recording and mixing engineer who owns The Lab recording studio in North Omaha. He brought in some of his many friends in the field to help show the 20 teenagers in the cohort there are many ways to make money in the music business.

“We kind of have our eyes set on that person in front of the camera, which is the artist or whatever,” Milliner said. “But there’s 10, 15 jobs behind that person.”

His students learned some basic engineering and producing skills, along with gaining knowledge about how to make money in marketing, managing artists and producing and engineering.

Dajanique Williams, 15, was one of 17 youths who went through the culinary arts program led by Jamil Bah-Traore, founder of Eat N’ Talk Africa. She learned basic knife skills, how to make a basic sauce and basics of jobs in the “back of the house” (preparing food) and “front of the house” (serving it). The students also experienced preparing dishes of five continents.

“My auntie cooks, so I can learn from here and there,” Williams said.

Could she see herself in a career in a culinary field? 

“Maybe,” Williams said. “This was fun. I would love to do more of this in the future.”



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