Joseline Arriaga was new to North Carolina, had not finished high school, and was the mother to an infant and a toddler—before her 18th birthday. When she moved to Charlotte from Texas, she re-enrolled in classes at Vance High School in north Charlotte. Her grades were good—she maintained a 3.8 GPA—but her future was uncertain.
That changed when she enrolled in a workforce development program called Career Pathways, a partnership between the Charlotte nonprofit MeckEd and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The program matches high school students with school-based advisors who introduce them to workplace learning opportunities including mentorships and internships. At Vance, that advisor is Torrie Burgess, an energetic woman in her late 20s who made an immediate connection with Arriaga. Burgess, too, became a teen mother.
“She is who I was 10 years ago,” Burgess said of Arriaga, as both women held back tears. “I wanted her to see I am who she can be 10 or 12 years from now.”
Burgess matched Arriaga with an internship program MeckEd cultivated with Carolinas HealthCare System. Through that experience, Arriaga learned about careers in nursing. Today, she is enrolled in classes to eventually become a labor and delivery nurse.
Burgess and Arriaga shared their story at MeckEd’s Annual Community Breakfast, against a backdrop of race cars inside Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame. MeckEd used stories like Arriaga’s to illustrate the importance of workplace learning, and to inspire other businesses to allow high schoolers—particularly at-risk teens like Arriaga—through their doors.
“I don’t think your zip code or the circumstances you’re born into should determine your trajectory,” said MeckEd Career Pathways Coordinator Omar Parkes.
To that end, each guest at the breakfast found a small compass at his or her place. “We have to help young people make sure they’re headed in the right direction,” said Ross Danis, the nonprofit’s executive director.
MeckEd’s started decades ago as an advocacy organization and recently expanded its program of work to include the Career Pathways initiative. It has served more than 6,000 students at multiple CMS campuses since Career Pathways started in 2012.
Danis was careful to connect the workforce development programming to MeckEd’s origins. “At its heart, MeckEd remains an advocacy organization,” he said. “When we say advocacy—in addition to advocating on behalf of our public schools, we are here primarily to advocate on behalf of the children and families they serve. Our clients are children.”
Toward the end of their testimonial, Burgess asked Arriaga if she had anything to say to the crowd. The teenager shyly demurred, shaking her head. And then she changed her mind.
“This,” she said, “is a miracle to me.”
Editor’s Note: Adam Rhew previously worked for the MeckEd’s public policy department.