There is a line from the movie Evita: “it’s hard to keep momentum, if it’s you that you are following.”

That’s exactly what the youth attending Yukon College’s Working and Leading program are doing. They are learning how to lead themselves.

The Learning and Leading program is the result of a partnership between Service Canada and Yukon College. Since 2003, over 130 youth have spent 15 weeks gaining skills and getting themselves ready for the job market.

They get basic workplace qualifications like First Aid, FOODSAFE and WHIMIS workplace safety training. But they also learn some of the so-called softer skills like conflict resolution and how to be a part of a team.

They get instruction once or twice every week from a whole list of professionals. Presentations can be everything from an RCMP Officer helping them to know their rights, to a dietician teaching good nutrition and how to cook for themselves, to Arlin McFarlane delivering a workshop on presenting and interview performance.

“The last semester of high school should look like this for every young person,” said a colleague of mine.

It’s the basics that are the most appreciated. One of this fall’s participants told me that the high point of the program for her was working on her résumé and cover letter.

“Before, it wasn’t very good. We went over it a couple of times,” she said.

Now she feels that her resume is good enough to get her a job. She also knows what kind of job she wants thanks to the personality and skills explorations she did as part of the program. She has decided to apply for an apprenticeship program.

There is no question that the program is a challenge for youth. Many of the students never finished high school. Day by day they learn and practise success-habits like showing up on time and following good health practices.

They read, they listen, and they learn what it feels like to support each other and succeed at things like public speaking, setting and reaching goals, and the hardest thing of all, messing up and not giving up.

“I get excited about (seeing) each person getting started on a positive path, a new path in a positive direction. . . . people trying new things,” says Shea Newnham co-coordinator of the program. “There is potential for profound change here.”

Some of the work of the program is disguised as play. This last group participated in art and carving workshops, traditional sweat lodge ceremonies, a canoe trip on the Yukon River and a two-day adventure at Sky High Wilderness Ranch.

Both Newnham and co-coordinator/instructor Micah Quinn show an unwavering belief that these youth can succeed. Quinn is inspired ” . . . to see people who have come from some very difficult situations wanting to make changes in their lives and then making those changes… showing up every day and contributing, giving back.”

The program is open to unemployed youth, ideally from ages 18 to 25, and will be starting again in January. Participants are paid a stipend equal to minimum wage while attending, and they get a $500 bonus for completing the program. Many participants are referred form various public and social organizations. Newnham and Quinn speak with each applicant to determine if the program is the right fit for the student.

The final component is a 10-day work placement— a supported, natural transition to the regular work world. This year students found placements at the Yukon Arts Centre, Boston Pizza, Java Connection, Whitehorse Motors, the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, Yukon College Facilities and Food Services, and the Northern Cultural Expressions Society Carving Studio.