Del Norte County is one of 19 communities - and the only rural community in California - to receive grants designed to strengthen the safety net for young adults who have dropped out of school and are unemployed.

The Aspen Institute's Forum for Community Solutions awarded a $50,000 grant last year to the Wild Rivers Community Foundation and the Del Norte County and Adjacent Tribal Lands Opportunity Youth Initiative to create and develop the program.

This year, the Aspen Institute will award a three-year $250,000 grant to the Opportunity Youth Initiative to help implement the program. The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions plans to provide up to $13 million in grant money to 21 programs nationwide that are helping opportunity youth in their communities.

"Opportunity youth" are defined as young men and women ages 16-24 who have dropped out of school and are unemployed. There are about 6.7 million opportunity youth nationwide, according to an Aspen Institute press release.

There are nearly 890 opportunity youth in Del Norte County, according to statistics compiled by Humboldt State University's California Center for Rural Policy. Nearly 570 young adults have not completed high school, while 755 are unemployed.

Those 890 opportunity youth cost Del Norte taxpayers roughly $12.4 million.

"It gets to be pretty significant when you look at how burdened our economy already is," Brubaker said. "How can we get these youth, who the system has failed or they have failed out of the system, where they can not only feel like they can be successful, but where they can be successful?"

Brubaker said the initiative's goal is to partner with local social services, including the Del Norte County Unified School District, the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services, Rural Human Services' Workforce Center as well as local tribes.

Initiative representatives hope to create a better network among local social services so anyone who walks into the door of one can be referred to others if necessary.

"We want to create that 'no wrong door' so they can walk into any door and be hooked up (so) they can get the help they need," Brubaker said. "This is about systems change and getting the systems to work better together."

One way to strengthenthe safety net for opportunity youth is to bolster vocational programs at Del Norte High School and College of the Redwoods, Brubaker said. She also spoke about building a program through Castle Rock Charter School called the Diploma Now program, which helps adults 19 and older get an actual high school diploma.

Brubaker said she hopes to help the Diploma Now program to expand and include skill-building opportunities.

The Opportunity Youth Initiative is also working with the Coastal Connections youth and young adult resource center to connect young adults more directly to resources.

"If a youth walked into Coastal Connections, they would be able to figure out how to get hooked up to all the resources in the community," Brubaker said. "(Currently) there's no resource website; there's no resource booklet. It's kind of word-of-mouth."

In addition to working with local social services, the Opportunity Youth Initiative has reached out to local businesses to talk about their role in increasing job opportunities for local youth, said Kathleen Moxon, who co-wrote the application for the original planning grant.

Moxon pointed out that once a young adult drops out of school, it's not easy to get back in. Many opportunity youth are parents who may or may not be working.

"Once you don't have a high school diploma, your job opportunities are very limited," she said, adding that even though some opportunity youth find minimum wage jobs, the lack of a diploma often prevents them from getting promotions. "They don't have training and they may be working full-time and don't have time to get training. It's a catch-22."

Moxon added that it was difficult for the initiative to track down young people who fit the opportunity youth demographic. Ultimately, through the Diploma Now program, the Opportunity Youth Initiative identified a core of about 20 young adults. Moxon said she hopes they can speak to their peers and encourage them to get involved with the program.

"It's interesting how invisible these young people become," she said. "We have to prove to them 1), that we care; and 2), that we can do something about their situation."

Del Norte County Health and Human Services employee Holly Meyer Zlokovich, who works with pregnant and parenting teens, said many of her clients fit into the opportunity youth category.

Zlokovich said she refers many of her clients to the Diploma Now program as well as helps them fill out college applications. She added that the Opportunity Youth Initiative will be a big help to the community.

"They have the right idea," Zlokovich said. "They don't want to come in and reinvent the wheel. (They just want) to assist the programs that are already here or find a better way to pull those youth in that could qualify for those programs."

The Aspen Institute's Forum for Community Solutions and Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund builds on the work and recommendations of the White House Council for Community Solutions. Melody C. Barnes, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, chairs the forum.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a non partisan venue for dealing with critical issues. For more information,

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