By Michael Wunder, News Editor

Getting that first job in high school can be difficult. Fortunately for some young Omahans, the Service Learning Academy at UNO offers a helping hand.

A new program is providing 100 metro area high school students with summer jobs, offering valuable employment experience and aid to community projects.

The SummerWorks program, a privately funded, SLA-led project, kicked off June 6 and continues through Aug. 4.

“The goals of the program are two-fold,” said SummerWorks Director Kathleen Olseon Lyons in an e-mail interview with The Gateway. “To respond to the needs of Omaha’s high school youth who desire summer employment and the opportunity to learn new skills, develop resources and expand their knowledge base; [and] to contribute to the building and strengthening of the greater Omaha community.”

In its first year, the program has found ample opportunities to give back to the community. The program’s first project was sandbagging to combat the Missouri River flooding of. The students and UNO graduate student team leaders were called on to assist flood-control efforts at Douglas County Wastewater Treatment site and at Carter Lake.

“The participants were able to produce between 3,600 and 4,000 bags of sand each day, which is about 30 tons,” Lyons, who is also assistant director for the SLA, said. “This makes a tremendous difference in building the levees needed to protect our community.”

 Between sandbagging, the teams were busy working in city parks and local nonprofits.

The students work Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Fridays, they take a break and learn about cultural events, city attractions and personal development skills. A majority of the participants are students from Benson, Central, Northwest and North high schools. Earlier in the spring, the students were encouraged at their schools, as well as youth organizations such as The Urban League of Nebraska; Girls, Inc., of Omaha; Boys and Girls Club of the Midlands; and the YMCA to apply for the program.

Out of 450 applications submitted, 100 students were chosen. Participants were selected based on previous school and community involvement and their own personal goals for the project.

The students earn $7.25 per hour Monday through Friday and work in groups of six.

Everyone involved enjoys the fundamentally educational experience, Lyons said.

“The participants love the activities, the learning and the work experience,” Lyons said. “They are learning the skills needed to be a good employee and earn income.”

The SummerWorks program is another Service Learning Academy initiative that represents the organization’s continuing devotion to hard work and community service.

The SLA was honored May 12 as one of 11 finalists for the 2010 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, the highest federal recognition a college or university can receive for commitment to community service.

Although he was thrilled for the SLA, Director Paul Sather said the recognition represented UNO as a whole.

“This is important for UNO as a university,” Sather said in an e-mail interview. “The award recognizes much more than just the Service Learning Academy. It is a statement about the commitment that UNO demonstrates to be a true partner with the community across the board in all activities related to civic engagement. This recognition places UNO at the same level as many of the most distinguished universities in the nation.”

Of the 851 universities that applied for the honor roll, 641 were admitted. Of those admitted, 511 were named to the honor roll. Last year, UNO was recognized as “Honor Roll with Distinction”—although already honorable, the University fared better this year as a “Finalist.”

The SLA supports UNO faculty, students and community partners in the development of high quality service-learning courses and community service experiences, Sather said.

“At the core of what we do is assisting students in using service to enhance their learning and providing opportunities for students to take steps toward developing a commitment to serving their communities.”

Sather said the SummerWorks program is meeting the SLA’s goals and will be continued next year.

“We believe [the program] has tremendous benefit for all involved and is responding to the needs within our community,” Lyons said. “We look forward to building a sustained program and expanding it  in the second year.”

The SummerWorks program isn’t the only one in which UNO students can give back to their community this summer, Lyons said.

“SummerWorks is just one of many community engagement  programs and activities we as  a metropolitan university sponsor,” she said.

“Through  UNO Serve, there are numerous ways students can be a part of  SummerWorks and all the volunteer activities and days of service as we engage within the community.”

Students interested in being Team Leaders can contact the SLA office by e-mail at