On a sweltering hot summer day in July, Joneil Custodio is teaching job skills to a diverse group of six teenagers at the Yesler Community Center in Seattle. ThriveCentral provides hands-on training in the latest online, marketing, and analytics tools, all while providing affordable solutions to businesses and organizations in Seattle’s historically African-American Central District. Thrive developed from a project Custodio piloted in Oakland, CA in 2010 and 2012. It won the 2014 Social Innovator Award from Seattle University.

According to Custodio, the interns are learning “a skill set that will prove useful to them whether they’re in the public sector or the private. In the private sector it’s called marketing. In the public sector its called engagement, but it’s the same thing.” The Seattle teens who participate in ThriveCentral learn career skills like project management, resume development, and time tracking. They also become adept in the most popular digital marketing and analytics tools: Basecamp, Google Apps, Doodle polls, the WordPress online publishing platform, Salesforce, and the Office Suite. Interns learn to clean and migrate contact records, coordinate email campaigns, and track online metrics. 

ThriveCentral Leadership Team members Sinae Cheh, Katelen Phelan, and Jeneca Dovey lead student interns in team building exercises before starting community project work (right)

Custodio is an organizational technology and business strategy consultant who recently began a new job at Microsoft. He was born in Canada but grew up in Tri Cities, Washington where he attended Hanford High School. Raised by an immigrant single mother, Custodio said he grew up in the absence of a father figure. This experience, he said, informs his commitment to working with young people – “to be a role model that I wish I would have had growing up.” He says he connects with the perseverance and drive of the kids he’s mentored. “Low income kids,” Custodio said, “they’re willing to hustle and they’re willing to work. That’s similar to how I was raised.

From 2006 to early 2011, Custodio worked at Prudential Financial as a regional diversity manager. “I covered the 15 western states and travelled pretty much every day,” Custodio explained. “I was doing good work but I didn’t get to stick around and see the results of what I was doing.” Seeking an

     ThriveCentral provides a busy summer schedule which requires teens to attend in      person two days a week, and to check in with Custodio via Skype daily (above)

opportunity to make positive change and see things through from start to finish, Custodio moved to the Bay Area to serve as a consultant for the Oakland Unified School District, working with a team of students to implement customer relationship management software for the district’s College and Career Readiness Center. This project inspired Custodio to develop the more extensive ThriveCentral program template.

Community partners with a common purpose 

Thrive operates in collaboration with Seattle University and Seattle Parks and Recreation, and students practice their new high tech skills by applying them at Central District organizations like Goodwill and Seattle’s Urban League.

Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Youth Employment Service Learning division recruited the interns. The City funds their stipends. Students were selected out of a pool of high school-aged youth from across the city. Molly Kokesh, Coordinator of Seattle Parks’ Youth Engaged in Service (YES) Program, said that ThriveCentral was “a natural fit” for partnering with the city. “We really liked the idea of students getting some hard skills that are really marketable in the current economy,” said Kokesh.

Seattle University provides two graduate education students who are helping to align the curriculum with Common Core, STEM, and 21st Century Skill standards. This will help make the program easier to justify and replicate, allowing for potential expansion to new locations.

“The students are learning way more than I’d originally anticipated,” Custodio said.

Seattle Urban League Housing Director, Linda Taylor, describes Urban League work to prevent home foreclosures in Seattle during ThriveCentral’s community project kick-off meeting.

Giving back to Central District organizations 

Teen participants forge their skills by providing digital outreach services to Central District organizations. For example, they help clients of the Village Spirit Center for Community Change and Healing. The Center is a housing, services and community economic development initiative focused on the black, urban Native American, and Latino/Chicano communities. The Center’s residents are largely seniors. Thrive interns help the clients with tech skills like Microsoft Office Suite, e-mail, and creating digital budgets and cover letters.

Interns also lended a hand at the Urban League of Seattle. Among other services, the interns helped Urban League staff to identify and engage people in need of foreclosure mitigation counseling.

Real kids learning hard skills 

The ThriveCentral model has potential to help fill performance gaps in a state where computing literacy is under-taught in public schools, and too many high school grads require remedial coursework in community colleges. Custodio views his program as highly scalable, and is eager to see a version of it expanded to other communities. “It’d be great to expand this model to northern districts: Northgate, Newport, South Seattle,” and so on. “If these students love the program, we might be able to scale it up to their high schools next summer.”