Room to grow: Chattanooga Housing Authority offers kids insight on careers, work

Room to grow: Chattanooga Housing Authority offers kids insight on careers, work

June 19th, 2014 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Ophelia Davis, left, and Cathy Mack listen as Gary Highfield talks to kids during a mentoring program at The Greater Chattanooga Housing Resource Center.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority is exposing public housing teenagers to career choices, offering them role models and an opportunity to get a job.

The deal includes a $300 stipend for all youths who complete the Destiny program and a job opportunity for those with the aptitude for the work.

"We're trying to reach residents with a holistic approach to provide them access to resources," said Carol Johnson, CHA's director of resident services. This is the first time the Chattanooga Housing Authority has made such an offer to public housing teenagers.

But out of 270 invitations sent to youths ages 13 to 18, only 15 teens responded. And only 11 of them showed up for CHA's interview.

These 11 students will be program pioneers, said CHA officials.

If they do well, CHA will seek more students next summer.

The program includes job shadowing with CHA employees. Students who do well will be hired to work in the Section 8 office.

"If they're good at it and they're hard workers, we would like to keep them," said Betsy McCright, CHA's executive director.

The main goal is to expand students' understanding of career options that may be available to them, McCright said.

CHA's Destiny mentoring program started this week and ends Aug. 1. Youths meet at least four hours a day, five days a week to hear mentors discuss their careers and the steps they took for employment.

Local author and entrepreneur Gary Highfield is among nine people who have volunteered to be mentors.

"The message is what is possible for other people is possible for you," said Highfield. "Where you are is not who you are."

Highfield, author of "When 'Want To' becomes 'Have To!,'" talked to youths about being a stockbroker. It's not just a job for someone else, he said, it could be a job for you, he told them.

He also distributed copies of his book, which describes how he grew up having five stepfathers while never knowing his own father. As he has overcome obstacles, he wants to encourage youths to do the same.

CHA said it wants to get enough mentors to pair one with each student. The mentors are expected to talk with youths about their careers, help them set goals and communicate with them throughout the school year.

The Urban League, Center for Nonprofit and OnPoint representatives will lead the youths in training sessions on conflict resolution and communication. And the youths will research and write about their career goals and learn about other careers they may have not considered, said Johnson.

Fourteen-year-old Demontye Hudgins said he participates in Destiny to "stay out of trouble and learn job experience."

The rising Hixson High School ninth-grader said he wants to play professional football or be a crime investigator.

Sixteen-year-old Kezia Jones wants to be a CHA housing inspector like her older sister.

And 16-year-old Ophelia Davis said she is destined for show business.

"I'm going to need you to be my security," she said to CHA Police Chief Felix Vess, who spoke about law enforcement. "I'm going to live in a big house and be a professional model."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.