Hometown Hero: Chris Ross

Chris Ross, manager for H.M. Dunn Aerospace, has always had a soft spot for helping youth in the St. Louis community. When Chris heard about the StL Youth Jobs program, a new jobs initiative that aims to break the cycle of poverty and crime by coordinating on-the-job work experiences for at-risk youth, he immediately wanted to learn more about how he – and his employer – could get involved.

Now in its second year, the StL Youth Jobs program aims to help at-risk youth ages 16 to 23 in the city of St. Louis secure meaningful summer employment, exposing them to positive adult relationships and providing them with the opportunity to advance their workplace and social skills. For Chris, the program spoke directly to him.

“My philosophy is that we’re all in this together – me, my employer, and the entire St. Louis community,” said Chris. “If our youth need help – regardless of their background – it’s our responsibility to guide them down the right path.”

Chris was encouraged by Patrick McCulloch, MERS Goodwill coordinator for the StL Youth Jobs program, to attend several job fairs in order to have a greater understanding of the program and youth it serves. “In facilitating a good job match it is critical that we understand all the requirements and nuances of a job,” said Patrick. Chris worked with Patrick to explore positions at H.M. Dunn such as shipping & receiving assistant, maintenance assistance, and office/clerical work. Chris was then introduced to Sarah Dotson, case manager for MERS Goodwill, and was paired with two of her clients – Duane and Jordan. Both Duane (age 19) and Jordan (age 18) were interested in electronics as a career path, but had no relevant work experience.

Taking their interests in mind, Chris assigned each youth to a working level manager so they could get on-the-job input from different management styles.

“Part of on-the-job training includes communication between employees and employers and how to meet real-life expectations within the workplace,” explained Chris. “This includes knowing when and how to communicate with your supervisor, which is proven to be an obstacle.”

As is true for many new experiences, youth with little work history can struggle adjusting to new demands. For Duane, he struggled the first few weeks of the program to get to work on time as well as follow directives from Chris. When confronted, Duane didn’t handle it in the best way. During his second week of work Chris asked him to do an undesired task and Duane was on the verge of quitting. Even in trying times, Chris was prepared to hang in there and he knew he could turn to Sarah and MERS Goodwill for help.

“I wanted Duane to understand that he may not always like it when his boss tells him what to do, but that it’s his responsibility, as an employee, to follow his employer’s rules,” said Sarah. “Once I communicated that to him, it was almost like a light bulb went off. He calmed down, called Chris to apologize and the two talked it out together. Since that point he has been ready and eager to learn, and has a better understanding about what it means to be an employee.”

Ultimately, overcoming that key obstacle proved to be a turning point for Duane. With the guidance of the StL Youth Jobs program and the mentorship by Chris and Sarah, Duane has figured out what he wants to do in life. He is interested in becoming an electrician and now has first-hand experience working in a professional setting with electronics. Duane leaned on Chris as a mentor when he wanted to take the next step in his life and was encouraged to enroll in college this fall at Forest Park Community College. Like Duane, Jordan is excited about a career in electronics and will be a student at Lincoln University this fall.

As the summer program comes to a close, Chris is thankful he got to play such an instrumental role in Duane and Jordan’s lives. Chris plans to participate in the StL Youth Jobs program next summer and is committed to helping at-risk kids beyond MERS Goodwill’s summer youth programs.

“Chris was such a positive male role model to Duane and Jordan,” said Sarah. “He not only gave them a chance to experience employment in an actual work setting, he gave them the confidence to be themselves.”