MERCED — Jesika Lopez, who grew up being judged by others, wants to prove people wrong.
"I was a statistic," the 23-year-old Atwater resident said. "I was always shut down."
But Lopez is not letting that stop her from pursuing her ambitions. She will participate in a new program for at risk-youth in Merced designed to give them jobs so they can gain work experience and skills.
They'll be paid $8 an hour by residents who hire them to do tasks ranging from house cleaning and laundry to yard work and repairs.
Besides making a little money and gaining the on-the-job experience, the youth will be able to benefit from a program that's focused on keeping them out of trouble.
The young participants will get help from mentors to avoid making bad decisions -- the kind that can end up sending them to a place such as juvenile hall, said Rachelle Abril, co-founder of the Distinguished Outreach Services, a nonprofit in Merced.
Her group is dedicated to educating and empowering community members to take advantage of available tools and resources. It recently launched the Mentoring Odd Job Organization Project. Also known as the MOJO Project, it targets young people between the ages of 15-23.
"Our main goal is to engage youth in the community, because they are going to be our tomorrow," she said of the new program.
The program will provide job skills and training, counseling, résumé writing assistance and help in getting high school diplomas or GEDs for participants who don't have either.
"They will be doing jobs, from anything domestic around the home, with businesses, local churches," she said. "Any type of odd job that needs to get done."
Lopez said this will give her the opportunity to get hands-on experience at different jobs, adding that she's willing to do anything. "We can do something more than just run the streets," she said.
Lopez wants to use the experience that she gains from the program to push herself. Eventually, she hopes to use those skills to find a good job, save some money, attend a vocational school and become a medical assistant.
She wants to stay connected to the program so she can remain active in the community. "I would actually like to stay even after and be able to mentor young kids that are coming in," she said.
The program held an orientation meeting Saturday, and about 15 youth showed up, Abril said, stressing that young people don't have to pay any fees to participate.
There will be another orientation session in about a week, and interested youth are welcome to attend, she said.
" 'At-risk' is not just a troubled child," she said, explaining that young people from stable backgrounds can be at risk of making bad decisions.
Abril hopes the community will help support the program by donating items that may be needed to keep it going. She needs residents to open their homes so young people can help with laundry, painting, fixing bikes or any other tasks that need to get done.
Sometimes people want to get things done, she said, but they don't have the time.
The program will partner with the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County, Abril said. Tony Slaton, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County, was not available for comment Thursday.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.