PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Stephon Hartley started as a Summerworks intern 2 years ago in the city mailroom. He was quickly promoted to the mayor’s office.

The 20-year-old said he comes from a gang-affected background, and the goal of Summerworks is helping low-income and at-risk young people through real world work experience.

“If I didn’t have this program when it found me, I’d probably be, I don’t know, doing nothing with my life,” he told KOIN 6 News. “Playing basketball, probably working at fast food.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, July 1, 2016 (KOIN)

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, who has been one of the program’s biggest supporters, helped get funding for 25 interns.She’s helped double funding every year she’s been involved, and this year, the number has grown to about 500.

“I’ve never seen a kid doing a drive-by on the way to work,” Smith said. “So, for me, giving a kid their first opportunity at working, networking for the future is huge for me.”

Smith said a similar program helped her when she was young.

Worksystems Youth Manager Barbara Timper, July 1, 2016 (KOIN)

“For many of the youth that participate it’s their very first job,” said Worksystems Youth Manager Barbara Timper, “giving a lot of young people the opportunity to learn how to work.”

Several groups pool their money to pay the kids wages and training, including the city, county and Worksystems Inc.

For Stephon Hartley, the program had led to big opportunities while he completes his college degree. He hopes one day to run for public office.

“Through everything I’ve done I’ve been offered and accepted a senior administrative specialist in the Office of Equity and Human Rights,” he said.

Summerworks Worksystems – information