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These Chicago teens find cool opportunities to fill the summer

VOISE Academy seniors Darcae Holmes Amber Richardsinterned Field Museum. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

VOISE Academy seniors Darcae Holmes and Amber Richardson interned at the Field Museum. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:27AM

When Fabian Young, 18, began working at McDonald’s earlier this summer, he did a lot more than flip burgers.

As an intern in McDonald’s corporate office, the East Garfield Park teen was charged with surveying employees and developing a social media strategy for the company’s hiring process.

Originally, Young just wanted a summer job to save money for college. But with the economy lagging and part-time work increasingly scarce — and with internships becoming more and more important for younger and younger students — Young pursued the nontraditional opportunity, one that could pave the way for further success down the road.

“When we say ‘summer jobs,’ not everyone envisions the same position,” said Greg Rivara, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. “For some people, it’s volunteerism or internships or the lifeguard at the park district. It’s the experience that provides the greatest value.”

For teenagers looking for work at typical spots such as a restaurant or retail outlet, this summer has been particularly brutal. While the overall unemployment rate for all job-seekers was 9.1 percent in July, the rate for teens hit 25 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But that number only accounts for teens who are actively seeking jobs. Only one in four of the 5.5 million 16- to 19-year-olds able to work actually found summer employment, the bureau reports.

“Employment is challenging in all age groups, and it’s a direct result of the national recession,” said Rivara.

Instead of paid work, some Chicago teens found internships and other experiences in the hopes that the nontraditional projects benefit them in the long run.

Amber Richardson, 17, of Austin, spent her summer at the Field Museum attempting to identify a new species of Samoan fish.

“Rather than working at a restaurant or a store, I’d rather be doing something valuable and learning something new,” said Richardson, a senior at VOISE Academy in Austin.

Richardson and fellow VOISE senior Darcae Holmes, also 17, are working with the museum to verify the tropical fish is a new species through data and DNA comparison.

“It was something I was thinking about going into, but now I’m sure it’s what I want to do,” said Holmes, an Oak Park resident who plans to study marine biology at Hawaii Pacific University. “I love doing our DNA work, looking at the fish. There are so many things we have yet to discover in the ocean.”

If the Samoan fish, discovered by Field Museum research scientist Josh Drew, does prove to be a new species, the two students will have the rare opportunity to co-author a study before they graduate from high school.

“Most high school students have not done primary research at all, and most of the time, they don’t get the opportunity to actually publish that research,” Drew said. “They’re doing the same sorts of things professional scientists are doing, and that’s really going to help them when they apply for college.”

Young, who is attending the University of Minnesota this fall to study applied economics and food business management, also believes his summer internship at McDonald’s will boost his career goals, which hit close to home: Young wants to open grocery markets in Chicago areas designated as food deserts.

“I want to run my own business — one that gives back to the community,” Young said. “I found out that there are communities that lack basic grocery stores, and I actually live in one of them.”

Four other Chicago teens spent the summer trying to find success in a vastly different field: music.

The four members of the indie rock band Give Back, which donates its earnings to community charities, spent all summer recording an album, filming a movie and playing gigs in the hopes of getting their one big break before three of them graduate from high school next year. The members didn’t look for jobs elsewhere.

“This year, there’s a sense like we need to make something happen, or nothing is ever going to happen,” said frontman Ryan Walsh, 17, a senior at Whitney Young from Lincoln Square. His brother J.P., 15, is also in the band. “It’s make it or break it.”

The band is hopeful that their big break came in June, when producers from DePaul University’s Project Bluelight invited them to play their music and act in a feature film, “Sweet Sixteen.”

Give Back’s drummer, Owen Jones, 17, of Bucktown, said even though it doesn’t pay much, “music is my part-time job. Promotion, sending our music everywhere, getting our foot in the door — it’s pretty intense, but it’s what I want to do.”

The band members are leaving their options open — the three seniors are applying to Ivy League schools and keeping their fingers crossed for a Lollapalooza slot in 2012 — but they said they know where their true passion lies.

“I’m applying [to schools], and I enjoy neurosciences and psychology, all that,” said Wicker Park’s Gavin Crowell, 17, a senior at Walter Payton. “But if this band could make it, I would drop all that in a second. That’s the dream for us.”

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