There was a time a few years ago when teenagers like Mario Mendoza would have had few options but to drop out of school.
But today, thanks to the Mogollon Rim Youth Transition Program, Mendoza is working as an assistant meat cutter at Bashas', and is on a career path that has him truly excited.
"Some people (who do this) get about 24 bucks an hour," Mendoza said. "I'd like to get up there."
But before YTP made a difference in his life, Mendoza had literally zero motivation.
"I just wanted to stay home and play video games," he said.
Laura Haskins, a YTP specialist, said the program is a partnership between the Payson Unified School District and the Arizona Department of Economic Security Rehabilitation Services.
"YTP serves students from 16 to 22 who have minor learning disabilities," she said.
The program, which PUSD initiated three years ago, is only offered in selected Arizona and Oregon high schools.
Karen Gray, a Payson-based vocational rehabilitation counselor oversees the program for the state.
"The students have to be eligible they have to have a disability," Gray said.
The program, which is actually attached to Payson High School, is primarily funded by the state. "For every dollar (PUSD) puts in, we put in $2.50," she said.
While Haskins noted that YTP is still a pilot program, she said there is no doubt that it is working.
"We track these kids while they are with us," she said, "and for two years after they graduate."
Of the 65 students who have gone through the program in its first three years, 23 simply wouldn't have finished high school without it, Haskins said. This year, there are 28 students in YTP, with a waiting list of another six or eight.
"Ninety percent of the kids in the program are at risk to drop out, so it really is a dropout recovery program," Haskins said. "Most dropouts have some sort of difficulty with learning."
One of the reasons YTP works is that the academic portion is all computer-based, and students are able to work at their own pace.
"It's a lot easier to learn on a computer," Mendoza said. "You go at your own speed, and if you get behind you can put in time on your own."
The other unique aspect of the program involves providing students with the skills they need to keep a job and then placing them in carefully supervised work situations where they can pursue their interests. That's where Haskins comes in.
One of two YTP specialists in the PUSD program, she said, "everybody needs to become employable. We assess their career goals, find out what they like to do and where their strengths are."
"A lot of them are depressed when they come to school, but can do very well on the job. But many of them are not yet ready to handle a job when they come into the program.
"We need to teach them these skills," she added.
While instilling interviewing skills, responsibility and good work habits are all important, YTP specialists also establish close relationships with the students who comprise their case load. "I'm like an extension of these kids' families," Haskins said.
"Once they get a job, I work with the employers as well," she said. "We're on pagers 24 hours a day, and we tell their bosses to call us if there is any kind of problem so we can intervene."
But she doesn't expect to receive such a call from Mendoza's boss, Bashas' meat manager John Wall.
"He's a wonderful kid, and he's done a heck of a job for us," Wall said.
While Mendoza started as a bagger, Wall liked his attitude and his "work up there." Once he turned 18, Wall approached him about switching to the meat department.
But Mendoza had to start at the bottom.
"At first, we used him as a closer for cleaning up, that kind of thing," Wall said. "Now he's progressed to where he's working during the day and actually getting more involved in the meat itself. He's been back here since May."
With a little prodding, Mendoza will take listeners behind the meat counter for a closer look at his new world.
"I cut bones, pork every now and then, hearts and livers the little stuff," he said. "From a big slab we'll cut a little piece off and we'll trim it. That's a steak."
One might naturally think a meat department is a world unto itself, but Mendoza said he has learned a little something about human nature. "People buy a lot of meat and they want it done a certain way," he said.
He's also learned that bosses want it done a certain way.
"We don't use meat cleavers anymore, but the knives we use are really sharp," he said. "When I first started to cut, I cut toward me. They stopped me real fast and showed me the right way."
If you're a meat cutter, it's a lesson that is best learned early on.
"Everyone back here has a chunk (of flesh) missing somewhere," he said. "I haven't lost one (finger) yet, but you have to be careful.
"There's a lot of stuff you do with your fingers really close to where you're cutting."
For Mendoza, who was recently able to buy his own car, the opportunity has quite literally changed his life.
"I didn't want to get a job, but they helped me get clothes and stuff," he said. "YTP really helped me out."
Business participation essential
While Haskins said Mendoza is the program's "star," they have a lot of other great kids and a lot of participating local businessmen who are essential for its success.
"Twenty-four of our 28 students are now employed at places like Chapman Auto, Community Presbyterian Child Learning Center, the casino restaurant, the Mogollon Grille, Parker Excavating, Wal-Mart, and quite a few others," she said. "Without them, we wouldn't have a program."
Mendoza, who already makes nearly as much as Haskins, finds each day on the job brings something new. But he's also learned that there is a downside to being a meat cutter.
"It's just really cold back there, especially in the winter," he said. "It's like 40 in the cutting room and in the freezer it's like 10 degrees.
"But," he added, "that's a small price to pay."