Standing in the front of a packed room, Karim Conte received his graduation certificate and gave the crowd a timid smile.
Conte, 19, is excited about his future a major turnaround from four months ago, when he said he was ready to drop out of school.
He and the 17 other young adult graduates of seminars hosted by Future Link Inc. are different people from 14 weeks ago, according to one of the seminar facilitators, Linda Youngentob.
“The kids even sat different [before] they look different,” Youngentob said after the ceremony Tuesday at Montgomery College in Rockville.
Future Link is a youth development program that helps young adults who are aging out of foster care, who have experienced homelessness, substance addiction, incarceration and/or abuse, or who are first generation college students. The program works with students to identify sustainable career paths. Then, it provides them guidance and connections to get started.
“We keep these kids from falling through the cracks,” said Ken Weiner, board president and a founding partner.
Conte, a Wheaton High School senior, will graduate this month and go to Montgomery College in the fall. He wants to work in computer networking.
Each semester, Future Link offers a free 14-week seminar to two groups of 10 to 12 young adults, ages ranging from 16 to 25. About 115 students have graduated since the nonprofit formed in 2008, Jacobson said.
The program is crucial for its participants, who would otherwise likely end up homeless or with substance abuse problems, according to executive director Mindi Jacobson.
“It is a growing population that is going down a really dismal path,” Jacobson said.
Of youth aging out of foster care, one in five become homeless and one in four are incarcerated within two years, according to the Future Link website.
“They have no one or nothing to move them forward,” she said.
Montgomery County’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget provides funding for the organization for the first time in fiscal 2013 the county executive included $20,000 for Future Link, Jacobson said.
The nonprofit’s annual budget is $75,000, which pays Jacobson’s salary, a stipend for facilitators, books, mentor training, and supplies. The organization is funded mostly by grants, but also by private donations. Jacobson is the only paid employee. Graduates receive a $500 scholarship.
The program will expand to Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus next year. Jacobson is hiring a director of student support services, and the organization is starting an internship program.
Participants go through a skill assessment and identify a career path. They learn professional skills, such as how to interview, and are connected with a company for an informational interview. The students also attend a two-day career immersion, where they see how companies operate.
For Hervys Arieta, who gave a speech Tuesday, attending the seminar meant going to school for the first time in six years, after dropping out of Watkins Mill High School when he was a junior.
When he walked into Montgomery College in Rockville the first day of the seminar, he seemed amazed just to be back in a classroom, said Youngentob, his facilitator.
Through the seminar, Arieta said he found out how he can get his commercial drivers license. He has been a delivery driver since dropping out of school. His informational interview was with a trucking company.
Conte’s father sent him to America from France in 2009 for a better education. He now realizes how much more opportunity there is here, he said.
Conte had his informational interview with MedImmune. He said he realizes that to get a job he wants, he needs education.
Jacobson said Tuesday that she would stay in touch with students through Facebook, phone calls, and emails.
“Some of them, they don’t have a caring adult in their life, and the fact that we are here … “ she said. “We become kind of like their parents, and their classmates are their siblings.”