Port St. Joe: Building Opportunity Pathways For Area Young People

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Young adults from Port St. Joe and nearby Wewahitchka participate in the education and job preparation program provided by CareerSource Gulf Coast.

When people see their community through the eyes of an outsider, it can be an eye-opening experience.

In early March, almost two dozen leaders from Port St. Joe, Florida, learned how their community looks to an impartial, outside observer — particularly around the issue of support systems for young people.

Representatives of MDC, Inc., a North Carolina-based nonprofit,  shared their assessment of the  “opportunity infrastructure” for young people in the Port St. Joe and surrounding Gulf County.

The assessment was part of MDC’s most recent report, State of the South: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation, published in late 2014. The report focuses on how Southern communities are creating opportunities for young people to prepare for and access employment that will provide them — and their families — with a self-sustaining income.

“Our message today is that you are not alone,” Richard Hart, MDC Communication Director, told the crowd that assembled at Gulf Coast State College. “Communities across the South face similar challenges and MDC wants to share how people in different places — including Port St Joe — are finding solutions.”

Port St. Joe is among the communities that were of particular importance to Mrs. duPont and one of the places in which the Jessie Ball duPont Fund invests most heavily. The Fund helped underwrite the State of the South research, which examined nine Southern communities — including Port St. Joe — in depth.

In its research, MDC focuses on economic mobility — the ability of individuals who are born into low-wealth circumstances to move up the economic ladder. Across the South, the chances of such upward mobility are significantly lower than in the rest of the United States.

In the greater Gulf County region, according to MDC, only 39% of those children born into a household earning $16,000 or less will end up, as adults, in the middle quintile of earners or higher.

Opportunity for young people, Hart noted, is tied to education and work experience.

In Gulf County, 53% of whites, 70% of blacks and 68% of Hispanics and Latinos, have no more than a high school education, according to MDC. And only 31% of the jobs in the Gulf County region will pay a living wage to individuals with only a high-school degree.

But Abby Parcell, MDC program manager, noted that Port St. Joe has some strong assets to build upon if it wants to improve opportunity for its young people.

“Your Workforce agency, CareerSource Gulf Coast, is among the most innovative in the nation,” she said, noting that the program in Gulf County works to provide an array of community support services, including job training and opportunities for young people. CareerSource places Port St. Joe high school and college students in summer internships and operates an intensive program to help disconnected youth gain education credentials, ready-to-work training and job access.

Some of those young people have earned a Certified Nursing Assistant credential and found employment at the Bridge at Bay St. Joe nursing care residence in Port St. Joe.

“I teach the CNA preparatory class,” Marsha Dickey told the group, “and that [credential] gives them a foundation. If they pass the state certification, that’s a stepping stone that we have placed in their lives, and then they can take it and go on up.”

Many attendees noted that they were unaware of the various programs already operating in the community, and the group vowed to reconvene and identify ways to collaborate.

“We need to change ourselves,” said David Woods Jr., pastor of the Port St. Joe Church of God in Christ, “and stop thinking this is what I do and start thinking this is what we do together.”