It’s warm inside Sunrise Cleaners on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte, probably above 95 degrees in parts of the building.
Ja’Shari Billups moves briskly as he sorts, labels and checks clothes to make sure they’re smooth.
With unemployment at nearly 30 percent for North Carolina teens ages 16 to 19 last summer, it doesn’t matter so much how hot it is at his job.
The 16-year-old is happy for the chance to work at a real business and to collect a paycheck this summer.
“I just keep working,” Ja’Shari said, electric fans humming over the hiss of padded steam irons. “You just do what you’re supposed to do and get it over with. By the time you finish that, it’s time to go.”
The odds were against Ja’Shari finding a job without the help of Charlotte nonprofit Youth Development Initiatives and its LIFT program for at-risk youths.
The University City resident spent more than a week in a Gaston County juvenile detention center last winter.
Ja’Shari said he was guilty of spending time with the wrong crowd. As a result, he said, he was accused of things he did not do.
He was removed from Vance High School and in January was sent to Turning Point Academy, an alternative school for troubled students.
So he showed up, discouraged by the direction his life had taken.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to be nothing in life, just another statistic,’ ” he recalled.
Ja’Shari decided to keep his head down and work hard.
“The amazing thing is his attitude changed, his behavior changed and his grades changed,” said Wallace Barnes, dean of students at Turning Point.
Ja’Shari got an invitation to join the LIFT employment and academic enrichment program at Turning Point.
He is one of 29 teens ages 14 to 17 placed at Charlotte businesses this summer through Charlotte nonprofit Youth Development Initiatives. The students also receive life-skills training.
Primary funding for the program comes from the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.
“The way to start on the right track is you have to let negative people go,” Ja’Shari said. “Now I’ve got experience at a business. I can go out on my own and fill out applications for other jobs. Now I’ve got something to put on my résumé.”
He also has a supporter and mentor in Sunrise Cleaners owner Kwon.
“I don’t have to micromanage him,” Kwon said. “He knows want needs to be done and he does it in a timely manner. He’s very professional.”
Kwon describes Ja’Shari as the best of the three workers he has hired through the program in the past three years.
With a business that has grown to 12 locations, Kwon said he doesn’t have time to do community service work outside business hours.
Hiring teens who haven’t worked at a business before allows him to give back to the community by offering job training and mentoring.
“I am actually the lucky one,” Kwon said. “I feel like I have the opportunity to maybe impact somebody’s life in a positive direction.”