Paws for a Cause is a series where we chat with our friends, clients, and peers in our local Colorado community. It’s a chance to check in and see how everyone’s doing, in business and in life.
Today we’re talking to Amy Banker, Program Director of Youth Employment Academy. Since 2017, YellowDog has worked with the folks at Youth Employment Academy on an array of print projects ranging from small-format business cards, postcards, and notebooks to large-format yard signs and more.
YellowDog: Hello Amy! Give us the short version of your nonprofit’s mission. What population or cause do you serve?
Amy Banker: The Youth Employment Academy (YEA) assists young adults, ages 14-24, in breaking the cycle of generational poverty in Denver communities by gaining personal and economic stability through education, arts, technology, and creative employment training.
YD: How and when did your nonprofit start?
AB: The YEA originated as a program of the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) in 2007. DHA established YEA to provide specific opportunities in education and employment for low-income, underserved young adults, to grow self-sufficiency for residents living in public housing in Denver. YEA became a stand-alone non-profit in 2012.
In 2013 our social enterprise, the Osage Café, was opened as a youth culinary training incubator in the La Alma neighborhood, bringing healthy, affordable food and job opportunities.
In 2016, YEA acquired Arts Street, an award-winning, established non-profit that had been leading youth in career paths in arts-based programming since 1995. With this expansion into the creative industries, Arts Street provides youth real-world experience working on client-based public art and design projects in a working studio.
In 2021, YEA opened a second social enterprise, Decatur Fresh. This small, fresh food market provides healthy eating options and retail opportunities to residents in the Sun Valley neighborhood, as well as continued training opportunities for young adults in the retail and service industries.
YEA continues to innovate and grow and add more opportunities for youth so that we are part of the solution of building equity in our communities.
YD: What was your journey into your role as the director? How did you get here?
AB: I often ask myself, “How did I get here?” and I tell the youth I work with that you never know where your life might lead! Be curious, be passionate about something, create connections and you may find the work that you are meant to do. I was raised in a small Kansas town and have led a winding path in adulthood. In college, I majored in ancient history and classical antiquity, and then I became a long-time educator. From there I became a creative and social change activist working in Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, and finally landing in Denver.
In each community where I found myself, most of my work was as a volunteer, including organizations such as Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste in Oregon to the Pan African Arts Society in Denver. Prior to my work with YEA, I was fortunate to work at the Metro State Center for Visual Art in Denver where I served as the Assistant Director and developed educational programs for youth and adults. I also worked with Denver Housing Authority in this capacity. When YEA started up in 2007, DHA called me to see if I would assist with programming and I have been with YEA ever since.
YD: COVID-19 has been a part of our lives throughout the past year. What have you learned about your organization, and/or how did you adapt in 2021?
AB: COVID really showed us that providing opportunities and offering a positive social influence for youth never stops. Like many others, we created new programming by delivering supplies, making sure youth and their families had the resources they needed, and providing virtual online classes, internships, and workshops. We always found ways to support young adults and help them work toward their eventual goals.
We learned that our staff was crucial in making a difference in the lives of others and that if it weren’t for their continued effort, our participants wouldn’t be where they are today. No matter what the barriers might be, finding ways to reach those in need, is always an essential service.
YD: What are the top three items on a “wishlist” for your organization?
AB: For our creative industries programming we would love to provide the most up-to-date technology and software. Our top “wishlist” items would be iPads, Apple digital drawing pencils, and Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions.
YD: Describe your organization in three words.
AB: Creative Youth Empowerment
YD: Love it! Thanks for sharing your story!
Now for some friendly rapid-fire questions:
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Cat (but I love all animals)
Favorite local beer?
I don’t drink alcohol, but I love Pablo’s Coffee in Denver!
What’s your best party trick?
Being able to create an artistic atmosphere for whatever party “theme” with very little money!
What show are you currently binging?
I’m not currently binging any show but just watched the movie The Power of the Dog and highly recommend it!
Any book you’re currently reading?
I have about 10 books sitting next to my bed but the one I picked up last night was Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies that Made It
What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
What I look forward to every year is meeting all the amazing new youth who take part in YEA’s programs. It gives me hope for the future!
YD: Thanks, Amy! It has been wonderful to hear your story and learn about how The Youth Employment Academy serves low-income youth and the greater community in Denver.
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