When Marquis Holden, a 17-year-old junior at North Lawndale College Prep starts school this September, he will look a little different than when he left school in June.

He will wear his pants pulled up to the waist, with a belt supporting it. The style hasn’t changed for some young men who are attempting to fit into their landscape, but Marquis wants to change his appearance as a result of his summer job.

He was standing at the water fountain inside of the Central Avenue office of Campaign for a Drug Free Westside when he thought the agency’s CEO, C.B. Johnson, was looking disapprovingly at his pants that were hanging way below the belt line.

Marquis became uncomfortable and pulled his pants up. The next day he wore a belt and has been wearing one ever since.

“I don’t feel comfortable wearing my pants like that anymore,” Marquis said.

He, along with his twin brother, Marsean, was one of eight young men and four young women who worked at our office through a program funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services. In addition to distributing goods at a food pantry, monitoring children at a day camp, and learning administrative skills, the teens also participated in a two-week job-readiness program.

The job-readiness program provided participants with a variety of personal and work-related skills, such as time management, conflict resolution and problem solving. Each participant also received one-on-one coaching with videotaped mock job interviews.

Preparing Austin’s young people for employment is especially important to a community that has a 37-percent unemployment rate for youths ages 16 to 19, according to the Department of Labor, and one of the highest homicide rates for youth in the nation.

The program’s goal was to provide alternatives to crime and violence, according to Michael Holmes, the associate director of the Office of Community and Positive Youth Development, which is part of the Illinois Department of Human Services. Holmes said the work of state legislators provided the funds for the Austin program, but federal funds would be needed to expand it.

Antonio Brown, 19, said the summer job was his first “real” job and it made him feel like he was doing something bigger with his life. He’s currently looking for a full-time job and taking GED classes.

“I felt more productive and a better member of society,” he said. “I prepared for work the night before. I took my bath, ironed my clothes and figured out what I would have for breakfast, and put everything that I needed the next day on top of my pants.”

Tremel Thomas, 16, a Marshall High School junior also said his summer job made him feel better because he was able to help his mother.

“My mom is a single parent, so it takes a load off of her. I was able to use my own money to pay my phone bill, pay for transportation, buy food, buy my school uniform, and pay for school fees,” he said, adding that the job kept him safe this summer. “It kept me off the street from trouble. If I weren’t working, I would probably be outside with my friends and bad things occur.”

Robert Starks, professor emeritus of Northeastern Illinois University and an N’DIGO columnist, feels that summer jobs help, but insists young people need more access to jobs, especially in their community.

“Many people see selling drugs as the only way they can provide for their well-being. We have to get young people jobs and a better education,” Starks said. “There is no excuse for non-African Americans to work on job sites in our community while our youth stand on corners.”

Regina Dove is a volunteer with Campaign for a Drug Free Westside.