When you talk to Imanol Cruz, it only takes about a minute to feel more energized and a little more positive than you were before the conversation started. You immediately sense his passion for helping young people get work experience and build confidence.
Fortunately for Imanol and the young people he works with, he has the right job: Program Coordinator at the MassHire Holyoke Career Center, one of several organizations to receive funds from MassHousing's Community Services Department (CSD).
"One of our programs within CSD is a summer youth jobs program," explains Kara Pillsbury Johnson, MassHousing's Community Services Analyst who oversees the program. "We award grants to local community organizations who are committed to providing young people with work experience." MassHire in Holyoke has been a beneficiary of the MassHousing summer jobs program for several years.
Many young people who live in apartment communities in and around Holyoke come to MassHire looking for summer jobs, and some of them live in apartments that are financed by MassHousing. Imanol - now 22 and a college student at Holyoke Community College - first came to MassHire as a high-schooler and was placed in a janitorial job with an adult day care provider. Something clicked for Imanol, and it was there, where he frequently assisted older adults in need, that he discovered a real commitment to helping people.
Imanol's experience instilled in him a desire to help other young people get a similar chance to work. When he turned 18, he got his chance when he was hired as a Counselor for MassHire. In that role, Imanol taught high schoolers about different aspects of the work world, including professionalism, interviewing skills, proper attire and the basics of personal finance like setting up a bank account. He helped match students with jobs, coached them on interviews, checked in with them several times a week and provided much-needed support and encouragement.
"A lot of these high school kids come from challenging home environments," Imanol says. “It's not easy for them, and as a counselor, you need to feel what they're feeling."
As he talks about these young people, Imanol's empathy and hopefulness come through. "I always say that rainy days make for great sunny days, and I say to them, 'with this job and this opportunity, you can change the course of your life and your family's life.'"
Imanol came back for a second year, determined to be an even better counselor and to pick up new skills. "Pretty soon they were giving me more to do, like data collection, tracking outcomes and recruiting businesses to participate in the program."
In March 2020, the pandemic hit and MassHire, like most businesses, was forced to halt their in-person activities (although MassHousing continued to provide funds for virtual activities). Imanol started attending college courses remotely and picked up a job at a security company.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2020, and MassHire received another round of funding from MassHousing. They asked Imanol to start a new role as Program Coordinator, specifically putting the MassHousing funds to work. Imanol is back to recruiting businesses and is also overseeing MassHire Holyoke's first program involving middle schoolers.
Imanol's enthusiasm and belief in the power of this program emerge as he talks about this latest chapter. It's important to "be that preventative force" that acts as a counterbalance to some of the negative influences that affect young people today, he says. "I'm very, very excited to be working in this new role," Imanol adds. "You don't know the impact you can have" on young people by giving them guidance in the world of work and a chance to prove themselves with a local business or nonprofit.
Imanol's short-term goals are to launch this new middle school program for MassHire and, as he puts it, "to become the standard for all of the MassHousing summer youth employment programs." He plans to transfer eventually to a 4-year college and aspires to a master's degree in accounting or management.
One can’t help but wonder if this charismatic young man might have a future in public affairs. He would only venture that he would always work to "be something in the community."
"The journey is far from over," says Imanol. There are a lot of hopeful young people in Holyoke - and perhaps beyond, who are glad for that.