Jonny Alejandre didn’t want to go at first. But his mother urged him to attend the Juma Ventures presentation at his high school. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t agreed,” says the 17-year-old junior. “It’s so surreal that one small event can drastically change your life.”
“The best social-service program in the world is a job,” says Juma’s chief operating officer Adriane Gamble Armstrong. “If we can connect a youth to workforce-development skills and an actual job with income, he or she has the ability to become a productive member of society.”
The organization started in 1993 employing homeless teens at its own Ben & Jerry’s franchise in San Francisco. Over the next few years it branched out to other scoop shops and then the sports-stadium concession business. In 1996 it earned a contract to sell food and drink at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, employing 40 youths.
“I’ll never forget my second night out at Candlestick,” writes one early student vendor. “It was about 30 degrees and raining. I was standing behind this cart, freezing. For the first half of the game I was standing there doing nothing. Then I looked up and I had this long line. My fingers curled up from holding the scoop, but I kept working. I was able to pace myself and get through the day, get my line down, get everything back to normal. I felt like I accomplished something that day.”
The concession model took off, and since then, more than 4,000 kids have earned over $4 million at stadiums throughout the U.S., gaining real work experience, money, and intensive life coaching from Juma staff, all at the same time.
Juma recruits students through partnerships with schools, social services, and other nonprofit organizations, choosing kids who face obstacles but have the drive to take advantage of its programs. Those it accepts get help in three areas—employment, academic support, and financial literacy and asset building.
Participants hail from low-income families with no experience of higher education. Absent intervention, many would never graduate from high school, never mind enroll in college. And among those who do make it to college from this demographic background, only a fifth actually complete a degree. By contrast, 97 percent of Juma students graduate from high school, and 70 percent earn a college degree within five years.
Before Juma, Alejandre says “something ‘umph’ was missing” from his life. Now he’s getting his “umph” by running up and down bleachers selling pizza and popcorn at AT&T Park in San Francisco, saving his paychecks for college. “The sporting venue is a hook for many young men, especially,” says Armstrong. “Once they’re in, we can involve them in our other programs.” The students learn personal responsibility, cash handling, punctuality, prioritizing, dress, and communication.
“I learned so much at Juma Ventures—stuff I can use for the rest of my life,” writes Loretta Gomes, another former Juma student. “If I would not have taken the class seriously I would have probably lost my job…. When I graduated Juma I not only walked away with new skills and a better attitude, a brighter future. I walked away with pride in myself, a confidence of knowing that I could handle every task given to me at work.”
Students put their paychecks in individual development accounts, with matching funds of up to three-to-one offered by Citibank, BlackRock, and other donors. The funds can be used for higher education and other approved expenses. Juma also provides tutoring, SAT prep, and application and financial aid guidance to get kids into college. And it offers continuing advice, services, and counseling once students are on campus.
The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation have supported Juma from the start. Along with monetary gifts, supporters have pitched in with pro bono services to help Juma thrive and grow. Gap Inc. gives professional development workshops for the group’s staff. The Surdna Foundation is helping Juma open new sites in Sacramento and Los Angeles. This assistance now allows Juma to serve 1,200 teens in cities stretching from San Diego to Seattle to New Orleans.
“Going through the program has really made me think about what I want to do, and how to use what I have in order to achieve those goals,” says Alejandre. “It takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to be better, and grab the most potential out of yourself that you can.” Along the way, Juma is cheering him and his peers on—as enthusiastically as football fans in the stands.