Kendra Shoemaker came to Duluth's Life House at age 18 after her mom kicked her out. She never had a job before, she said, but she found a career path through Life House's employment program.

Now, the 20-year-old Duluth resident advocates for social change at the Minnesota State Capitol and volunteers at Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, a rape crisis center in Duluth.

And thanks to federal grant funding, at-risk youth now have more opportunities to participate in similar employment programs.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Rick Nolan visited Life House — which serves at-risk homeless youth in the Twin Ports — on Thursday morning to learn about the pilot programs supported by a $636,000 Youth Workforce Development Grant awarded this spring, aimed at setting at-risk youth on a path to employment.

Shoemaker said the new program will help participants develop job skills they never knew they had.

"Hopefully it will encourage them to do bigger and greater things later on," she said.

Emily Edison, executive director of SOAR Career Solutions, said the program supported by the grant money was created by a collaborative effort involving a handful of community organizations, including Life House, SOAR Career Solutions, Duluth Workforce Development, Woodland Hills Juvenile Justice Services, Lake Superior College, Duluth Public Schools and Duluth Adult Basic Education.

The grant will support the employment program over a three-year span. The program — called Opportunity Youth of Duluth — aims to increase participants' readiness and ability to be employed.

"The only way they're going to do that is with a helping hand," Klobuchar said. "And that's what this program is about."

Klobuchar said she hopes to eventually use the pilot program as a statewide and national model.

At-risk youth include kids who are disengaged from work and school. That can stem from poverty, family dysfunction and homelessness, Edison said.

"We realized if we want to have a real impact, we need to start working more cohesively together," Edison said. "That's what we did with this grant."

The program provides both transitional and traditional models to prepare youth for employment, Edison said, to effectively meet the needs of youth at various life stages.

Maude Dornfeld, executive director of Life House, said the organization provides the transitional path, which started this week. It teaches youth small business skills by leading them through the process of creating their own small business. Skills learned include website creation, social media marketing and computer skills. Dornfeld said that when the program is fully up and running, Life House will hold it two hours a day, five days a week.

And the best part for the kids? The program pays youth $10 per hour for their work.

"What they need right after a safe place to live is a safe way to make money," Dornfeld said, adding pay is also an incentive for participants — who can be disengaged with education — to stay engaged with their project.

The program includes three modules over nine months. The modules teach youth about entrepreneurship, encourage them to develop a business idea, and instruct youth through the planning process of starting a business and then implementing that plan.

Life House's part of the program has eight kids involved, Dornfeld said, but can accommodate 12. It's still in the early stages, she added, but they plan to officially start the program on Jan. 1.

SOAR Career Solutions provides a traditional employment readiness model by offering resume and interview workshops. SOAR also connects participants with employers to discuss available jobs and workplace environments.

"We really do some of that intentional one-on-one career planning," Edison said.

As participants gain job skills on Life House's transitional track, they can move into SOAR's traditional track and move closer to employment, Dornfeld said. Conversely, if a participant struggles in SOAR's program, he or she can re-enter Life House's program.

The transitional and traditional employment paths are aimed at providing youth with work experience, job skills training and job search assistance as well as opportunities for internships, career exploration and education.

Edison said the organizations involved provide various forms of stabilizing support to youth throughout the program. Whether that's help with housing, educational support or helping youth develop career pathways, the overall goal is to help participants obtain educational credentials, find a job and keep it.

The program will expand after a year to include at-risk youth in residential placement, such as juveniles at Woodland Hills, Dornfeld said. Because they're in residence for a shorter period of time, she said, the current model of curriculum will be modified to fit their needs.

"We're using this year to build the curriculum," Dornfeld said.

Dornfeld said the organizations will hire a program evaluator to help determine if any needs are not being met.

As the pilot program progresses, Klobuchar said legislators will measure its success by looking at the number of youth involved, the risk-level of those youth and the benefits to those participants.

"Then you roll it out across the state," Klobuchar said.

Nolan said the programs are good on their own but even more effective when paired with the collaborative effort of community organizations.

"With a little bit of guidance and a little bit of assistance," Nolan said, "(the youth) can make a great contribution to the whole of society."