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VIP program targets southeast Queens youth

The Varied Internship Program is entering its 10th year of existence, and founder James Blake says the program continues to be a positive example of local government and community investing in their own future.

The program targets teenagers living in southeast Queens between 14 and 18, and tries to lure them away from involvement with drugs by providing each participant with an after-school internship at a local business.

Blake, a professor at Manhattan Borough Community College, was on hand Friday at the Carver Savings Bank in St. Albans to help teach the participants about investing in their own futures as they listened to the bank managers' explanation of how to open up a checking account and the merits of saving their earnings.

"Once you arrive at your $100,000 jobs, we hope you find time to give back to the community and help others the way you have been helped," Blake told the 30 high school students gathered at the bank. This year there are 40 students participating in the program, Blake said.

As part of the VIP program, participants gather every Friday for a weekly seminar. Some of the past topics have been information about sexually transmitted diseases, interviewing skills, and family-life experiences.

"We have got to engage the youth in positive activity," said the program's Director Nettie Johnson-Burgess.

Burgess has run the day-to-day operations of the program since its inception in 1990, when drugs and crime were ravaging the southeast Queens community. She said the program targets at-risk kids and participants often get involved through word of mouth.

Blake said many of the youth in the community come from single-parent families, and that after-school hours are when teens are most likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

Blake said the community has become much more proactive in protecting youth from the trappings of drug use and crime.

So instead of walking the streets after school, VIP participants are at a local library or hospital or any number of local institutions and businesses, earning a weekly stipend and gaining work experience.

Siobhn Johnson, a 10th-grader at Forest Hills High School, said working at the YMCA in downtown Jamaica has taught her responsibility and helped her to develop a work ethic.

"I mostly work as a receptionist, I take messages, I help them rent out rooms," she said.

Johnson said she wants to go into the armed services after high school to learn more discipline and earn money for college.

Richard Gordon, a sophomore at Thomas Edison High School, helps grade students with their homework at the Kemitc tutoring center in St. Albans.

"We tutor everyone. The oldest student that comes in for help is in the 12th grade," said Gordon.

Flona Hall, a junior at the school for Law and Government, also tutors at the center.

"Tutoring pushes me to learn more. It is a lot of responsibility," Hall said.

Hall said she hopes to eventually practice law.

Before the banking seminar began, many of the students cashed their checks in the bank or deposited them in an account.

Blake said he is planning a 10th anniversary celebration at the end of the spring, when students have the opportunity to meet past participants.

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