Denver students are getting paid to learn how the city works

An internship program helps teens from underserved neighborhoods get valuable work experience.
7 min. read
Amanda Coy (left to right), Bryssa Silerio and Elena Espino, North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative interns, speak to a reporter in their office, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Elena Espino is only 17, but the Bruce Randolph School senior is building quite a resume for wherever life leads her next. She has two jobs, which she juggles on top of high school classes and, well, just being a 17-year-old person.

So what lies around the corner, after she graduates?

"I think it's hard, I want to do so many things," Espino said laughing. "At first I was thinking about nursing, about the medical field. And then I thought about community outreach or political science."

She's clearly in the right place now. In addition to her job as a shift leader at a local deli, Espino works as an intern four days a week for the city's North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a government agency founded in 2013 focusing on projects in Elyria Swansea, Globeville and in River North. One of its goals is to help people living there provide input on projects.

Espino's job is part of a pilot program called "career residency." It provides paid internships for teenagers from historically underserved neighborhoods. The program runs at the NDCC.

"I think that they're going through a lot of gentrification at the moment, so I like to see that there's people who don't forget about us and the neighborhood and they're helping us," Espino said.

Espino is one of four teenagers from local schools hired for the program. Deputy Director William Chan said they recruited from local organizations that frequently work with young people, like Project VOYCE.

Amanda Coy (right to left), Bryssa Silerio and Elena Espino, North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative interns, speak to a reporter in their office, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Bryssa Silerio, 17, is also a senior at Bruce Randolph. She and Espino worked at GrowHaus when they learned about this internship. Silerio was the shiest of the group; she couldn't quite express why she had decided not to pursue engineering as a potential college major (she now wants to major in math).

"I just want my community to improve because I know that there is a lot of pollution in that area," Silerio said quietly. "And due to it, there's a lot of -- a lot of the people who live there have health problems ... I want to somehow help the community."

Chan said NDCC works to address "larger systematic barriers" in those communities, which is what led them to begin the internship program this year.

The program seeks rising juniors from north Denver neighborhoods. It was funded for three years.

The interns are not just flies on the wall.

NDCC Spokesperson Leesly Leon said they get to participate in meetings and contribute to ongoing projects. DSST: Montview High School junior Amanda Coy, 16, came from Project VOYCE, which she credits in helping her stay informed about her neighborhood.

Coy has lived in Elyria-Swansea for about five years after moving to Denver from the South. She works three days a week at the office. She recently participated in a meeting about the upcoming U.S. Census.

"I didn't know what that was," Coy, who also has a second job working at an ice cream shop, said. "I just heard about it once in history class and was like, 'Okay, that's something that exists.' And I've actually been trying to give out presentations about it and it's been really beneficial to me."

Coy was scheduled to help with a presentation at the University of Denver, a school she wants to attend to study political science and theater.

Leon said their goal is to give Coy and her peers a chance to work on things that are happening in the city and in their neighborhoods.

"When you start an internship it might be very basic tasks but those tasks are part of the projects and the programs that we are doing that are being implemented in their community," Leon said.

Chan said the internship is a chance for the teens to represent their communities, all while being connected to city offices that can lead to a job or connect them with certain city services.

Chan, like some of the interns, is a first-generation American. He said he wasn't really connected to many professionals like doctors or engineers growing up. He sees this program as a chance to give students connections to these kinds of role models.

Intern Elena Espino's desk at the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"There are so many ripple effects and yeah, education is one of them, but it's also the other piece is where it's the economic mobility," Chan said. "A lot of the youth in this community are working and supporting families."

Chan said the interns are exposed to a professional environment that could help develop their interest in various career paths.

There's also the tangible benefit of getting paid. The interns get $13 an hour and have access to up to $4,000 to attend training classes at local colleges. They're limited to 16 hours per week their first year, which they can increase to 24 in their second year and 32 in their third. Most students work multiple days.

"When they get their paycheck, it's like, 'I did this, I made this,'" Leon said.

Director of Career and Family Education Nancy Hernandez, who oversees the interns, said some of their duties include English-Spanish translations. It's a skill that's always in high demand.

"They are part of our team," Hernandez said. "They are doing the same level of work. They're doing research, they're doing community outreach, they're learning how to do spreadsheets, use mapping tools. They're learning how to discuss what's happening with our city."

Espino lives in Elyria-Swansea and has been in Denver for about a year. But she's already built a strong connection to the area. She recently wrapped up planning work for a bike lane on Clayton Street.

"The people, they mean a lot to me," Espino said. "I eventually want to help my people out. I know how it feels to be left out on things."

Hernandez said she doesn't worry too much about a student's GPA or their leadership positions or prior work experience.

"For me, it was very, very important that we include young people who are traditionally overlooked," Hernandez said.

Nancy Hernandez, deputy director of career and family education for the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, speaks to a reporter in the NDCC office, Oct. 30, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Chan said while the work experience is important, they still want their interns to graduate from high school. It's experience they can use for college, a vocational school or to begin a job. He said it puts them in a good position to be hired by the city full-time once they get their high school diploma.

Building confidence is another major goal for the program.

"So I really want to empower them and to say, tell us, guide us, this is your -- this is your future, this is your city, this is going to belong to you," Hernandez said. "And you already have a lot of wisdom and a lot of lived experience that we don't have."

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