In June 2020, Eli enrolled in Jobs for America’s Graduates New York (JAG NY) because he was ready to study for his high school equivalency (HSE) degree. Since then, he has taken advantage of every opportunity available to him as part of the program. In addition to his work in HSE classes and job-readiness training, Eli represents CASES as a LEAP Fellow in national convenings organized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP) initiative. He also participates in the youth-led LOVE Project, a community benefit project in Coney Island supported with funding from the JAG National office through a partnership with IHG.
When asked to describe his time in JAG NY, Eli begins with how the program has helped him change his mindset.
“[JAG NY] has helped me to become a better person,” he says. “Last year, my mindset was different. I wasn’t very motivated to do a lot of stuff. This year, knowing that I’m working with JAG . . . I love every meeting I go to, because it shows me that there are more participants who have the same self-motivation skills. I like being a part of a community like that.”
Eli is 23 years old and was referred to JAG NY by his case coordinator in another CASES program. His goals for JAG NY include earning his HSE, earning an OSHA license so he can secure a job in the construction field, and obtaining his own apartment, because he’s been living in a shelter in Queens since March 2020.
Eli is focused on what keeps him motivated to achieve these goals including, above all, his daughter.
“I’m a father to a six-month-old. My daughter, she changed my mindset too,” he says. “I dropped out of school when I was in twelfth grade. So now I want to get my GED, so that when my daughter gets older, I can tell her that Daddy did it—that Daddy left school but then he finished down the line.”
CASES JAG NY Specialist Samantha Robles tells him that his willingness and ability to self-reflect will be critical in helping him achieve his goals.
“I got to meet [Eli] during this part of his transition,” she says. “So for me, he’s always had these skillsets. He’s always been motivated. But from what he’s told me about his past . . . there’s a lot of self-reflection. He’ll say, ‘You know, back in the day, this is not how I would have thought, this is not how I would have approached this situation. I probably wouldn’t even talk about stuff like this.’ To me, his ability to self-reflect is the most important thing.”
Samantha works with Eli through his participation in the LOVE Project, which is focused on increasing access to community services in Coney Island, Brooklyn. While Eli was born in Central Brooklyn and currently lives in Queens, he wanted to participate in the LOVE Project because of what it stands for: Lift Our Voices in Equity.
Samantha points out that, while there are inequities in available resources in the Coney Island community, there are also many critical services that residents could utilize if they knew they existed. JAG NY participants, including Eli, are identifying the resources that are available in Coney Island and planning how to distribute this information to residents.
“The more knowledge you have,” Eli explained, “the more information you can share with people. That’s why I’m doing the LOVE Project, and that’s why I’m doing JAG. So I can have all the information and gain all that knowledge and be able to show it to my little sister and my daughter and my best friend.”
In addition to his work in Coney Island, Eli is contributing his time and experience on a national scale. Soon after Eli enrolled in JAG NY, program staff nominated Eli to represent the program as CASES’ LEAP Fellow. CASES first implemented the JAG model in 2016 as part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s LEAP initiative, which provided three years of funding for CASES to implement the JAG Out-of-School model for young people in New York City involved in the criminal legal, foster care, and/or shelter systems. While the initial three-year LEAP grant has ended, CASES continues to receive annual support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and to share data and best practices with other LEAP grantees. As the LEAP Fellow, Eli shares critical feedback that will contribute to continued improvements made to the CASES JAG NY program and to the implementation of the JAG Out-of-School model nationwide.
For previous national LEAP conventions, the LEAP Fellow would travel with JAG staff to represent CASES. This year, these meetings—along with all JAG NY services—have been held online.
“The fact that I got chosen was shocking to me,” Eli said. “That was a high honor. At the convenings, it shows that there are people across the country, not just in New York, who want to help you strive. They haven’t met me in person, but just hearing my story, they want to help me do better, and vice versa.”
From the LOVE Project to LEAP to this interview, Eli treats each opportunity presented by JAG NY as a chance to develop new skills and challenge himself.
“You’re allowed to have your comfort zone, but it’s okay to step outside of it for a little bit, even if it’s only for half an hour,” he said. “Even with this interview, I was kind of nervous. I’m always nervous when the idea first comes up, but then I still sign up. And then when the day gets closer, I’m like, ‘Okay, you know what, you’ve done it a million times since last year. It’s nothing to be nervous about, just be yourself.’”