More than 100 teens from every reservation participated in the Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP), where they gained valuable experience from working every day and earning a paycheck every week.
The program, sponsored by the Center for Student Success and Services, placed students in a variety of tribal departments including Culture, Recreation, Boys & Girls Club, Preschool, Seminole Police Department, Fire Rescue, Housing, Cattle and Range, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Billie Swamp Safari, Native Learning Center, Elders and the library.
“We never had so many kids apply,” said Kajir Harriot, CSSS student success coach. “We have a lot of motivated individuals who want to make a difference in the Tribe.”
The learning and experience went beyond the departments. Harriot advised all the participants to open a bank account and learn to manage their money.
Based on their interests, SWEP students chose the departments in which they wanted to work. Andrew Bowers Jr. has always been interested in history and culture, so he chose Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki where he helped coordinate and archive audio and video oral histories.
“The new generation needs to know our history so we can tell it to later generations,” said Andrew, 14. “I’m spending my time wisely here.”
Working closely with the museum’s oral history coordinator Justin Giles, Andrew learned a lot about the Tribe’s history and traveled to Brighton to show seniors historic photographs in hopes they could identify indviduals in the pictures.
“He’s helped me out big time,” Giles said. “We organized and labeled 350 CDs in the oral history collection. It was tedious work and took a week to complete; that was a huge help.”
Chandler DeMayo worked in the museum’s education department where he accompanied education coordinator Alyssa Boge as she gave tours and made presentations of his own.
During a tour on July 18, Chandler gave the Seminole perspective on the exhibits to a group of Florida International University summer students. He explained the tradition of hunting, corn dance, sofkee, lapalle, clans and even the role of uncles. He told them the art of patchwork began in earnest when the Tribe started using Singer sewing machines in the early 1900s.
“Patchwork is a big part of our culture,” said Chandler, 16. “Everyone on every reservation makes it. Some people wear it all the time.”
Culture is important to Chandler, who enjoys participating in cultural ceremonies. He chose the museum because he wanted to learn more about it and the Tribe’s history.
“All of these documents matter, these photos matter,” he said.
Although the first few days of the program were a little nerve wracking for Chandler, he believes more of his peers should participate in SWEP.
“Do it even if you think it will be a waste of time,” he said. “It teaches you how to act in a work environment, gives you work exposure and how to manage a paycheck. I think it’s important for kids to get out of their comfort zones and try it.”
Richard Billie Jr. spent his summer at Billie Swamp Safari, where he helped with the animals and with maintenance on the swamp buggies. He arrived at work usually by 8 a.m. and didn’t mind waking up early.
“I was surprised by how friendly people are here. It’s like a family,” said Richard, 16. “I am happy with the work I did here. It’s fun and I’ll have nice memories.”
Like many other SWEP participants, Richard thinks more students should experience the program.
“You only get one chance to do some things,” he said. “Don’t think things will always be there for you. If there is an opportunity, seize it and don’t let it get away.”
Founded in 2005, the goal of the program is to prepare students for the workforce and expose them to opportunities within the Tribe. CSSS removed the GPA requirement to participate this year, which made the program available to many more students.
“It made more students interested in the program,” said CSSS Tribal Professional Development Coordinator Kerlande Patterson. “It was a pretty great summer; we had more kids than ever. There was a significant increase from 37 last year.”
Patterson said the department also did more outreach this year, including on Facebook, and she called a lot of parents to remind them about the program. It worked; 107 kids participated.
While preparing to compete in the Jr. Miss Florida Seminole competition, which she won, SWEP participant Allegra Billie worked in the Immokalee Culture Department. There she helped teach the Boys & Girls Club and Recreation kids how to bead, make patchwork and anything else she was asked to do.
A natural introvert, the hardest part of the program for Allegra was interacting with other Culture employees and the kids.
“It helped bring me out of my shell,” said Allegra, 17. “Otherwise it’s an easy and good environment.”
She chose Culture because she wanted to get back into beading and sewing, which she hadn’t done in a while.
“It’s a good thing to come back to the Tribe and give back,” Allegra said. “If you have the opportunity, why not take it?”
Miah Davis worked in the Diane Yzaguirre Memorial Library in Immokalee, where she helped plan projects and activities for children. She said sometimes they didn’t listen very well, which was a little frustrating.
“It’s important to have a positive attitude and be open to everyone,” said Miah, 16. “You have to be understanding; everybody goes through things and they could be going through stuff at home.”
Marina Garcia, who worked with the young children at the Immokalee Boys & Girls Club, joined SWEP because she wanted some work experience. She enjoyed playing games, helping the kids and making them laugh during the day.
“The best part is when I’m tired, they help me get through the day by making me laugh,” said Marina, 15.