Since 1972, a private charity called Covenant House has worked to improve the lives of runaway, at-risk, and homeless youths in New York City, providing food, shelter, counseling and other forms of help. This year, Covenant House New York is marking the 21st anniversary of a life-skills and job-training program that helps prepare young people for independent adulthood.

It?s an annual celebration, a formal diploma ceremony for graduates of the "Rights of Passage" program at New York?s Covenant House. The formerly homeless or at-risk youths in their late teens or early twenties, some with small children of their own, have completed months of job training and classes in life-skills. And with the aid of mentors, they have made plans for reaching their continuing educational and career goals.

?All that you need to do for us now is go and have a good life,? said Covenant House executive director Bruce Henry in his address to the graduates and their families and friends. Covenant House was founded 36 years ago by Roman Catholic laypeople as a youth crisis center. It was Henry who came up with the idea for the Rights of Passage program in 1987. He saw that at-risk and street kids in their late teens or early twenties needed more than short-term assistance. They were too old for orphanages or foster families. But they were not prepared for independent adulthood, either.

?Kids come out of foster care every single day at 19, and they end up back in the shelter system, because they're too young to take care of themselves,? Henry said in an interview. He noted that many middle-class youths move back in with their parents following college because, despite their education, they?re not yet ready for wholly independent lives. ?[So] why would we take these kids who've struggled so much and say, ?Well they're 19, they're an adult, why can't they take care of themselves? It doesn't make any sense.?

Covenant House resident Vincent Santana's life, for example, was derailed when his father died. ?I was still in school, but I had to leave after he passed away, because we couldn't afford the rent,? the 19 year old said during a pause in his work at Covenant House. ?Me and my mother came up here to New York because we were going to stay with family here. That didn't work out either, so she ended up going back to Florida, and I ended up staying here. to try to live it out.?

The Rights of Passage program teaches everyday life-skills that more privileged youth might take for granted, such as how to dress for a job interview or open a bank account. Participants also are given job training, so that they can find entry-level work. Vincent Santana and Tyler Jones are both training as cooks in the kitchen at Covenant House.

?I like it, it's really interesting, because you learn a lot of different things and you meet a lot of people from a lot of different places,? said Jones. ?And you learn to cook a lot of different meals because the people that work in the kitchen are from all different kinds of places. You get to use your own mind, your own imagination.?  Jones is a young single mother of a toddler. They both live with Jones?s mother and siblings, and were never homeless. But she needed work skills, and happened to see a sign one day advertising the Rights of Passage training program. 

Santana has also found he likes cooking:  ?After I'm done with this, after I get my certificate, I'm going to try to get a good restaurant job and eventually become a chef, and I want to own my own restaurant. That's my plan,? he said.

More than 500 New York companies participate in Rights of Passage, offering internships or jobs. Bruce Henry said that employment is the top priority. ?And that comes out of something really quite simple: their age,? he said. ?We understand that they have a lot of problems that they're trying to put together, all the way from housing, to their emotional problems, to their family problems. But if you're 22, and you can't work, you have no shot at working with the rest of the problems.?

Like other Covenant House programs, Rights of Passage is funded mainly by private donations. In 21 years, Henry says, thousands of young people have graduated in New York and at other Covenant Houses in the U.S. and Canada. Some of those alumnae, now in their 30s and 40s, volunteer as mentors to the current generation of Covenant House youths.