West Michigan Works! celebrated the culmination of its Ascend Career Readiness Conference from November 13-17. The virtual event, designed for youth aged 15-24, provided career exploration and skill-building opportunities. The Ascend Career Readiness Conference empowers young individuals by enhancing their career readiness, offering a chance to learn from local expert speakers on topics like financial literacy, goal setting and mental health. 

Youth who completed the Ascend Summer Youth Career Readiness program were eligible for the leadership conference. 

“Enrolling individuals who demonstrated commitment and engagement in our Ascend Summer Youth Career Readiness Program ensured that attendees were ready to learn and primed to apply these skills they learned in real-world scenarios,” said Chad Patton, director of development & innovation at West Michigan Works!. “The engaging conference speakers add depth to the Ascend program, providing participants practical perspectives and strategies to succeed in their careers.”  

The first hour of each conference night featured an impressive lineup of national motivational speakers, each offering their unique insights on a variety of crucial topics. Highlights included A’ric Jackson’s dynamic presentation ‘Destroy The Box’ and Duncan Kirkwood’s impactful session ‘Going After Success with Resilience.’ Danny Snow captivated the audience with his talk on ‘Customer Service – Lessons from the Mouse,’ while Juan Bendana inspired attendees with his strategies for building leadership confidence. The week’s sessions culminated with Dr. Laymon Hicks’ powerful talk on overcoming obstacles. 

During the conference’s second hour each night, the sessions covered a range of themes, delivered by both national and Grand Rapids-based speakers. Lasada Pippen led an engaging discussion on finding one’s purpose, and EJ Carrion presented on courage in success, both drawing from their experiences as national motivational speakers. Local Grand Rapids perspectives were provided by Damika M. Houston of Healing Minds LLC, focusing on the importance of mental health, Iryonna Hogan from 2 Reach & Teach LLC, who shared her expertise in financial literacy, and Kris Mathis, who brought in his unique insights on workplace motivation from the Grand Rapids context. 

The conference’s second-hour sessions each night covered themes like finding one’s purpose with Lasada Pippen, courage in success with EJ Carrion, mental health importance with Grand Rapids-based Healing Minds LLC’s Damika M. Houston, financial literacy with Grand Rapids-based 2 Reach & Teach LLC’s Iryonna Hogan and workplace motivation with Grand Rapids’ Kris Mathis.    

The Summer Youth Career Readiness program, which ran from June 20 to August 3, offered participants aged 14-24 a unique opportunity to gain experience working in industries they are passionate about.  

Youth were paired with employers who aligned with their interests and skills. The paid position emphasized the ‘Earn and Learn’ model, with participants receiving weekly payments based on attendance and completion of online activities. YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin, Ionia Chamber, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and John Ball Zoo were among the participating employers.  

This year’s summer program included essential components like career exploration, problem-solving in the workplace and soft skills training. Understanding the need for accessibility, West Michigan Works! provided support for participants who lacked the necessary technology, ensuring inclusive participation. 

Reflecting on the tangible impacts of these programs, testimonials from community employers underscore the positive outcomes and personal growth experienced by participants. 

“We were very pleased with the Ascend program participant who we worked with this summer. She was so hardworking and responsible. It was also great to get to know her. We are hoping to get her involved in our other youth leadership programs so that we can help her achieve her goals,” said Becky Missad, business manager, YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin. 

The Ascend Career Readiness Conference and the Summer Youth Career Readiness Program was made possible through funding from DTE Energy, United Way of the Lakeshore and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.     

Through its Ascend programming, West Michigan Works! is committed to providing access to youth services across West Michigan, helping young people complete their education and prepare for rewarding careers. Ascend offers various services, including education and training, career exploration, work experience, and support for necessities like transportation and childcare. 

To learn more about youth work experiences, job shadowing and talent tours, visit our Youth Career Exploration page.