Executive Director, Year Up Boston
It's a long way from Africa to Boston, but there came a point in his life when Casey Recupero had to make a decision: which location did he want to settle down in?
For Casey, the path leading up to that decision was always one of service. In his early years, he and his mother moved frequently among the small towns surrounding Burlington, Vermont—an experience that shaped his perspective on the challenges many families face in achieving the American Dream. Whether riding out a number of what he describes as "hectic moments" with an alcoholic stepfather or serving as a bridge between classmates from different backgrounds, Casey learned that he could have a positive impact on others as a listener and problem-solver. "I tell my students that I was a social worker at age eight, so I've been on this career path for a long time!" he smiles. At that time, there weren't many role models in Casey's life who had exposure to an Ivy League education, so when he was accepted into Harvard University, he hesitated. "I had a lot of biases about what Harvard would be like," he recalls.
He took the chance, however, and what he discovered there was his passion. Carrying a double major of Anthropology and African Studies, he spent two summers in Botswana, where he determined that he wanted to work in the field of social justice overseas.
Upon graduation, he accepted a position as Program Officer at World Education, Inc., which provides training and technical assistance to local community-based organizations in developing countries all around the world. In this capacity, Casey was charged with developing programs focusing on HIV/AIDS peer education for Ghanaian youth, small business development in South Africa, and education reform in Malawi. It was a job he held—and loved—for five years.
Eventually, however, the amount of time he spent traveling between the U.S. and Africa became a quality of life issue for him. "I spent a lot of time on a plane and missed a lot of Red Sox games and birthdays," he says, "and when I was home in the States, it meant that I was on the wrong side of the Atlantic from the people I was truly working for." He and his wife considered relocating permanently to Ghana, but ultimately decided to "put our roots down in the U.S."
An Opportunity to Bridge the "Opportunity Divide"
The question then became: what to do next? "I looked at graduate schools and was an admitted student at several of them," Casey says. "But I realized that I wanted to do something rather than sit in a classroom for two years."
What he did instead was join an organization whose mission is partly to put young people in a position where they too could "learn by doing" in a work environment that might otherwise be unavailable to them. Founded in Boston in 2000 by a fellow Harvard alum, Year Up provides an intensive one-year educational and professional job training program for at-risk urban young adults. In late summer 2004, Casey "got on the train as it was speeding up," as he puts it—that is, expanding into a nationwide program. In his first two years, he worked side-by-side with Year Up's CEO to build the organization. Today, he serves as Executive Director of the Boston chapter.
To Casey, what Year Up offers is a way to close what he calls the "opportunity divide." He estimates that 4.3 million "disconnected youth" in this country lack the means or the support system they need to gain the education and skills necessary for a successful career. Casey points out that what is emerging as a result is a dual-class economy where the people who stand to benefit the most from higher education and career opportunities find it hardest to do so.
At the same time, Casey reveals that only eight percent of college graduates today "go the traditional route" of going to college full-time for four years immediately after graduating from high school. More and more young people are creating a different model for the college experience, either by postponing higher education in order to work and save money first or by combining work and school.
The Year Up program embraces that alternate model by providing high school graduates and GED recipients, ages 18-24 years old, with a six-month corporate internship where they can apply their practical skills and experience.
One Year, Two Phases
Casey describes the program as having two phases. The first is the 21st-century school where "we live the values we're teaching," as he puts it. Students here learn the technical skills needed for an entry-level job in technology or finance, as well as the "professional ABCs" (attitude, behavior, and communication), such as how to shake hands properly and how to talk to a supervisor. The key is creating an environment that offers what Casey calls "constant teachable moments," extending the concept of "classroom" to include the lunchroom, elevator, and even the burrito stand around the corner.
The focus on education continues into college. Students earn college credit for the year they spend in Year Up, and the Year Up staff supports their long-term success—no matter how long it takes them to earn their bachelor's degree.
The second phase of Year Up is central to the program: the internship program, in which Year Up students are given the opportunity to gain entry-level business skills through internships with the country's leading corporations. As the economy begins to recover, these are companies that are ready to hire but are having trouble finding candidates with the necessary skills to fill open positions—despite the glut of unemployed people still looking for work. Year Up students offer the right blend of talent, intelligence, dedication, and training—as well as neighborhood savvy many other candidates lack.
In Boston alone, corporate participants in the Year Up program include such heavy hitters as Bank of America, Biogen Idec, Fidelity Investments, Google, Harvard University, Partners HealthCare, and State Street Corporation. The program has been wildly beneficial to corporations and students alike. According to their supervisors, 90% of the interns have met or exceeded expectations. Up to 40% of students receive job offers as a direct result of their internship. And more than 80% of Year Up graduates either earn an average of $30,000 a year or enroll in college full-time upon completion of the program. Many were making only $5,000 annually before enrolling in Year Up. Today, Boston area is home to nearly 1,100 Year Up graduates—young professionals working up the ranks of corporate America.
A Record of Net Gains
That success is typical of Casey's tenure as Year Up Boston's Executive Director. Under his leadership, the program has grown 30%, and it continues to expand. For Casey, though, the rewards are personal, as well as professional. "It's rewarding to watch a human being go through the process of change in an incredibly short time," he says, citing for example a young Salvadoran man named Juan, a 2006 graduate who started out working with the cleaning crew for an office building where he now is a supervisor in the computer lab. Or 2007 graduate Richard, who now manages a five-person team at Massachusetts General Hospital that is staffed entirely by other Year Up graduates and interns.
Equally rewarding to Casey is watching how the staff at Year Up Boston's corporate partners has taken to the program. "We've shown them that there's talent in Dudley Square, Eggleston Square, and Mattapan just like there is in Wellesley or Newton," he says, citing Boston's inner-city neighborhoods and richer suburbs. "By showing them what was available, we've been able to change people's lives."
Changing lives is what Grand Circle Foundation is all about, and Casey is grateful to have been given the opportunity to join the Foundation's Community Advisory Group (CAG). "Alan and Harriet Lewis are very, very committed to the neighborhood and to figuring out where help is needed most," he praises. As a result, a system has been developed to provide specific goals for each of the organizations represented in the CAG, within the context of what role each of can play. "The organizations assembled are of the highest quality, and they're headed by the highest-quality, driven people," he says. "I'm inspired by them. And Alan and Harriet are gutsy leaders themselves!"
As much as he is glad that he chose Boston over Africa, Casey is still bitten by the travel bug, and he and his wife love to travel as often as they can, with Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean their favorite destinations. Their latest quest is to visit as many of America's national parks as possible—"we're up to 20-plus right now," he says. He also enjoys spending time outdoors and plans to participate in this summer's Pan Mass Challenge, America's oldest fundraising bike-a-thon.
And the couple is awaiting another life-changing event: the birth of their first child, expected in October. You may be sure that their child will be raised in an environment of hope and opportunity—exactly the same things Casey is endeavoring to provide for all the young people of Boston.
"I want people to understand that, when we expect great things from young people, they can deliver," Casey says. "At Year Up Boston, we don't lower our expectations just because a student comes from tough circumstances. Our society loses when we view these young people as social liabilities. With high support and high expectations, they can outcompete even master's degree holders from the city's universities."
That's an achievement Casey himself can be proud of, too.
Featured in our June 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.