The City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy spread its wings in 2017, its 10th year of providing Asheville youths with meaningful summer work opportunities. The program, primarily funded by the city of Asheville with support from Buncombe County, cultivates local workers whose experiences will in turn benefit the city.
Historically, CAYLA had been offered solely to Asheville High students, but recently the program was allocated more funding. The extra resources allowed the program to expand availability to students attending all Buncombe County high schools. Along with broadening its demographic, the program increased its maximum class size from 25 to 40. Program Director Erika Germer says this expansion supports Asheville City Council’s strategic vision for equity in access to educational opportunities and robust workforce development.
“CAYLA has consistently received more applicants than can be placed in the [previous] 25 positions, and there exists strong interest among community organizations serving youth to refer their participants to the CAYLA program,” Germer says.
This summer, CAYLA interns have worked at a wide variety of businesses, nonprofits and agencies in the Asheville area, such as the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services and the Omni Grove Park Inn. “CAYLA offers an exciting opportunity for students to earn a paycheck and, at the same time, gain quality work experience. The program intentionally creates a learning atmosphere that helps young people discover and explore their talents while contributing to the well-being of their community,” Germer says.
In addition to working four days per week with an employer, CAYLA students meet on Fridays for workshops, community service projects and field trips based around a central theme for the summer. In past years, CAYLA students have explored topics like social entrepreneurship, researching and visiting local ventures including French Broad Chocolates and Green Opportunities. Students then presented their own business plans to a group of prominent community members, including former Mayor Terry Bellamy, one of the program’s founders. The Friday workshops also instruct students in life skills such as preparing for college, employability, leadership, communication, problem-solving and financial literacy.
CAYLA students meet monthly during the academic year for required community service projects and meetings. In past years they have organized events such as the MLK Youth Summit, a social justice conference for local youths, and a monthlong after-school class with Asheville Middle School’s In Real Life program.
“Throughout the school year, CAYLA students contribute their passions and talents to the community at large by volunteering, by being role models for their siblings and peers, and by discovering how they can make a difference both now and in the future,” Germer says.
CAYLA has an active web of 120-plus alumni. Six graduates of the program recently visited a Friday workshop to answer questions and address concerns about attending college. Another feature of the 2017 expansion of the program is the addition of Growth Coaches — five alumni now in college and graduate school who direct Friday lessons, supervise field trips, lead groups of 10 students and act as mentors.
All CAYLA seniors receive a $2,000 scholarship upon graduation and successful completion of the program. As of 2017, $1.5 million has been awarded to program graduates in merit scholarships. CAYLA boasts a successful track record: 100 percent of CAYLA seniors have been accepted to college since 2007. Students can participate in CAYLA more than once if they reapply; the majority of students participate in the program for multiple years.
The goal of the program is to nurture prepared, professional young people who will positively reflect their city wherever their personal paths may lead. CAYLA gives students a jump start on their futures, placing them in scenarios requiring a maturity and sense of responsibility that many teenagers do not develop until they formally enter the workforce.
“The biggest benefit to CAYLA students is realizing their own potential and what’s possible for their future, as a result of the entirely new experiences and opportunities that CAYLA offers,” Germer says.
Fisayo Bashorum, a student at Buncombe County Early College and a CAYLA intern at Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, says the program provides her with “a deeper connection to the city of Asheville, which I will be using in my future.” Bashorum hopes to one day hold a seat on City Council.
Editor’s note: Arianna Moore is a participant in the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy. This summer she has been working at Mountain Xpress as part of the program.