Wednesday, February 27, 2019

10 years of Empowering Local Youth: Merck's Making Positive Choices Program

“Remember me? I was in your class!”

For those of us who don’t teach for a living, like Shelia Carter, an Associate Director/Oncology Launch Planner & Business Consultant at Merck, these are not words we’d expect to hear at the check-out line of a local home furnishing store. But for Shelia and her fellow volunteers in the Making Positive Choices Program, interactions like these are commonplace.

“Remember the lesson where we learned how to do job interviews?” the woman staffing the checkout counter asked Shelia excitedly. “It worked—I got the job!”

Just a couple of years prior, the woman staffing the check-out line had been Shelia’s student in the Youth in Transition module of the Making Positive Choices Program.

Thanks to a unique partnership between Street Law, Inc. and Merck, the Making Positive Choices Program empowers youth aging out of foster care and youth in underserved community and school settings. After receiving curricular materials and training from Street Law, Merck volunteers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania visit local community-based sites to teach these lessons. The lessons cover topics such as landlord-tenant law, education, employment law, credit and consumer law, and police-community relations. The practical knowledge presented through these interactive lessons promotes the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that build confidence and positive career outcomes for young people transitioning to adulthood.

The students are among society’s most vulnerable young people, and the deck is often stacked against them. “No one has ever asked them about their story, or told them that they can make a positive impact on the world, or that they can be successful,” says Shelia. Shelia Carter of Merck

Despite their need to hold a stable job and understand their rights in the workplace, “a lot of these children do not know employment law, and they don’t know their rights,” says Christy Garrett, a senior associate in Merck’s legal department who volunteers in the program. “These high school children are going to be in the working field, and they’re going to want to be part of your company one day.”

Last year, more than 100 volunteers from Merck contributed close to 1,400 volunteer hours participating in the program, reaching 607 young people.

“The program’s main impact,” says Kirke Weaver, a Vice President in Merck’s legal department who has volunteered in the Making Positive Choices Program for over five years, “is that it encourages the students to think beyond where they currently are and think about new possibilities. It helps open up their minds so that they think more holistically, whether it’s trying to figure out what a career choice might be, what a job interviewer might be looking for, or how people are treated in the workplace.”

Merck volunteers find a sense of fulfillment from their participation in the program. “A lot of the kids look like me, frankly—African-American, came from broken homes—and I felt like, ‘oh my gosh, this is where I can really make an impact!’” says Shelia.

The program also positively impacts company culture. “Volunteers not only engage with the people they’re helping, but with each other as well, so it helps build that sense of community,” says Kirke.

The lesson plans and trainings that Street Law provides are integral to the success of the Making Positive Choices Program, volunteers report. Last year, Street Law staff provided four separate trainings to Merck employees, and introduced four new lesson plans to volunteers. “They set us up for success,” says Christy. Kirke Weaver of Merck

In keeping with Street Law’s hallmark strategy of providing interactive civic learning opportunities, says Kirke, the materials “provide a way for students to get engaged in experiential learning or discussion-based learning, which makes it much easier to teach—you have engaged students, and the materials definitely help with that.”

To support the program’s success, Street Law staff maintains regular contact with Merck’s volunteers, including a cadre of Lead Volunteers, who are able to provide additional on-site support to newer volunteers. Street Law also keeps in regular touch with Merck’s Making Positive Choices Steering Committee, whose members recruit new volunteers and conduct volunteer appreciation events.

The result is a program that is entering its tenth year of success, building legal and civic knowledge, skills, and attitudes for hundreds of underserved mid-Atlantic youth each year. After participating in the program, one student reported, “I feel that our opinions matter too.”

For more information about this program, contact Yolanda Johnson.

Image Caption: Top: Shelia Carter. Bottom: Kirke Weaver. Photos courtesy of Merck.