Janasia Body grew up in Hartford’s North End, the second of five children born to a single mother who battles depression. As a junior, her Two Rivers Magnet High School principal recommended her for a paid internship with Aetna, where she worked full-time for two summers in the Human Resources department.
Today, she works part-time as a temporary employee in Aetna’s Pension and Investment Management Department. A sophomore accounting major at Central Connecticut State University with a 3.0 GPA, she hopes to earn a Master’s in Business Administration and Juris Doctorate from UConn and become a corporate lawyer.
Body, 20, is one of dozens of young women and men who has benefited from multiple Aetna initiatives designed to give less advantaged teenagers life skills and experiences that their more affluent counterparts learn through their families. In addition to providing paid internships to 40 high school girls and boys from the Hartford region each summer, for eight years, Aetna, a CVS Health company, has partnered with the YWCA of Hartford.
Through the YWCA’s Young Women’s Leadership Corps Summer Institute (YWLC-SI), Aetna has hosted teenage girls two days a week through a five-week summer program and provided interactive training in health, fitness and wellness, STEM-related skills, personal finance, internet safety, self-defense, community service, interpersonal skills and college and career planning.
It started with Aetna’s Lisa Chirichella, who served on the YWCA board and thought she and her Aetna colleagues could share some of their skills with the young women in the YWLC-SI program. She and a coworker spoke to management, she says, and before they knew it so many colleagues wanted to be involved that the program grew from two hours a week at the Y to two full days at Aetna, she says.
“I’ve been very fortunate in life. I really felt like I needed to give back in some way,” Chirichella says. “For me, it’s more fulfilling [than writing a check]. I like to see when we have an impact – when we take a shy young woman who doesn’t know how to navigate her path,” and she eventually feels comfortable talking with Aetna coworkers about school struggles.
As soon as Body, the former intern, began working in the Investment Management group the summer after graduating from high school, Chirichella, her new boss, asked her to coordinate a panel of past Aetna interns speaking to an audience of incoming Aetna interns.
“I felt a sense of purpose,” says Body. She felt nervous, she says, but focused on the goals of the panel discussion, knowing that just two years earlier, she had been a high school student about to start an internship at a company she’d never even heard of. The experience, she says, “taught me patience and to put on different hats.”
YWLC Summer Institute is a free, full-day summer program that serves about 35 girls ages 12 to 18 from the Hartford area. The curriculum, developed in partnership with Aetna, strives to address barriers and disparities young women face and give them the opportunities, relationships and skills needed to successfully navigate adulthood. Among other skills, girls are taught how to make eye contact, shake hands, dress for a business casual workplace and give an elevator pitch when asked about themselves.
“The kids coming from the Y program are leaps and bounds ahead of the other [interns] because they’ve already been trained in the Aetna culture,” says Chirichella, with the Investment Management Department. “They’ve been in the building. They know how adults talk at work.”
It’s gratifying to see the young women who were once quiet and hesitant blossom into confident young women, she says. Young women who never saw themselves working at a large corporation can now imagine it, Chirichella says, adding, “That’s what makes me want to go back and do it again.”
Aetna employees who have led the sessions have modified the training to make it more interactive so that the girls get more out of it. Two days of the five YWLC-Summer Institute days, the girls visit Aetna’s campus where employees from a broad range of departments lead hands-on lessons. Most of the volunteers give one to two hours per week.
About 17 women and men from IT teach different classes over the course of the summer: how to take laptops apart and put them back together; how to build a computer; computer and cell phone safety, and social media do’s and don’ts. Aetna experts on health and wellness teach girls how to read nutrition labels and about healthy eating, mindfulness and exercise. A woman doctor answers questions the girls write down anonymously and slip into a box.
Staff from the Y is always present and “helps us and makes sure we’re doing the right kind of programming,” Chirichella says.
In a personal finance game, each girl is given $100 in play money and tasked with creating a household budget. Initially, many girls want a Mercedes, a mansion and a dog, but they quickly learn that everything has a cost. They’re put to work helping local nonprofits, learning about the value of community service.
Two other mentoring programs include the 25-year-old ConnectiKids, where Aetna employees mentor 50 students in the Asylum Hill headquarters weekly and a long-standing partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, in which employees serve as mentors and coaches at the clubs.
Chirichella says she and her colleagues would love to see more corporations involved so that every disadvantaged kid could have the same opportunities. They can start small, with volunteers working with kids for a few hours a week, she suggests.
“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” she says. “We’re happy to share best practices.”
Individual leaders throughout corporations in our region are stepping up to run programs like these or just participate as a mentor. In the coming months, Achieve Hartford is going to try and identify programs similar to the one at Aetna and identify ways they can be expanded.