More than a gym: How the YMCA is shaping a healthy San Diego workforce

YMCA YFS graduate

At YMCA Youth & Family Services (YFS) the workforce development programs focus on transition age youth—a population of young adults ages 18-25—who are navigating the complex transition from adolescence to adulthood. Many of the young adults they encounter come from backgrounds of disconnection, including youth who are in or formerly part of the foster care system, youth experiencing homelessness, or youth facing any barriers that jeopardize their ability to connect with employers.

Without opportunities to cultivate meaningful career-related relationships, young adults in these circumstances face barriers to employment and have limited opportunity to practice skills that will lead to long-term stability. A dedicated, holistic approach to building a career path for this population is key to ending cycles of poverty and disconnection.

The San Diego Workforce Partnership sat down with Krysta Esquivel, Executive Director at YMCA YFS to hear more about their commitment to social service in San Diego County.

How do you see the YMCA affecting the individuals you serve and what is the YMCA goal for our San Diego community?

YMCA YFS believes all youth and families should have a safe place to live, a reliable support system, a sense of purpose and direction, and be connected to resources needed to flourish. We know that human beings are designed to be social, and regardless of the adversity they faced growing up, all youth need relationships to heal, thrive, become successful adults and replace reliance on public assistance with a network of supportive individuals.

YMCA YFS hired employeeOur programs emphasize the importance of social connectedness and the skills necessary to identify and maintain the connections that can lead to increasingly fruitful career opportunities in addition to overall well-being. Social capital acts as an organic safety net in times of crisis and persists long after our programs and services are completed.

At the end of their time at the Y, our youth have increased their resilience to confront past traumas, implemented the tools and skills gained to acquire meaningful employment and navigate complex systems and prepared themselves to maintain financial stability and decrease reliance on public assistance throughout life.

What are some of the links between YMCA and workforce development?

We focus on increasing economic stability and mobility among transition age youth and workforce development is paramount in those efforts. We work side-by-side with youth to explore their interests, pursue meaningful career prospects and increase the skills necessary for success in the workplace. This includes traditional aspects like building a resume, completing an application that stands out from a pool of applicants, preparing for an interview, and personal finance education to ensure youth can stay financially stable once they begin earning income.

However, workforce development isn’t just about the tangible skills and products like resumes and applications. Emotional well-being and optimal self-regulation skills are also critical to succeeding in the work place, so we infuse neuroscience into workforce development to ensure that young people develop the emotional capacity to navigate the complexities of the world of work.

By the time youth come to us for supportive services, we know that their prolonged exposure to adversity creates chronic stress and a persistent feeling of anxiety, which causes a state of hyper-arousal where the brain responds like it is constantly threatened. In the workplace, for example, this means that a youth may overreact to a conversation with a supervisor that was simply meant to be corrective, escalate the situation unnecessarily and potentially jeopardize their employment status.

This understanding of the young adult brain, coupled with a nuanced maturation process where youth are still achieving physiological milestones well into their adult years, presents a critical window of time where we can mitigate the harm youth have experienced and arm them with the skills that will change their trajectory from one of vulnerability to stability.

Currently, we have several grants that allow us to offer subsidized internships within the YMCA and externally through partners like the San Diego Workforce Partnership, where our youth can put these elements into practice and build meaningful career experience that will set the foundation for a successful adulthood.

YMCA YFS employeesWhat do you wish the community knew about the Y?

We are proud to be known for our gyms and camps throughout the county and we also want the community to know about our commitment to social service.

YMCA YFS started in 1970 when the San Diego County Department of Probation approached the Y about creating a prevention program for vulnerable youth. That program still exists today, and in the years since, YFS has grown to operate more than 20 programs that directly serve approximately 4,000 individuals in San Diego County in areas of transitional housing and youth development, family support and preservation, and mental and behavioral health.

YMCA YFS differs from most YMCA branches in that we do not have a membership model to support our work. Instead we rely on investments from government grants and community partners to ensure we can continue to offer services at low or no cost to San Diego’s most under-resourced youth and families.

Our programs don’t just offer services like transitional housing, clinical therapy, and family supports for services’ sake—we use these services as primary points of contact and guide youth and families through a process that empowers them to combat the barriers that prevent them from leading stable and healthy lives. We seek to make a sustained impact on the youth and families in our programs, using the latest evidence, innovations, and continuous quality improvement to end cycles of poverty and disconnection once and for all.

Click here for more information on YMCA YFS services and support.