‘Siembra’ internship plants seeds for budding professionals needed in Nebraska

Armed with red, green, skinny, stubby and other chiles, Haidy Rivera and a team of fellow interns set out to create an unforgettable salsa.

By the end of a weeklong mission, guided by renowned Nebraska chef Clayton Chapman, the half-dozen teens had cooked up and packaged a hot item they felt suited their nonprofit client’s needs.

And in the process, seeds were planted — the kind that grow careers.

“For some, this is scratching the edges of entrepreneurship, taking an idea, testing and executing. For others it’s stepping outside their comfort zone,” Albert Varas, chief executive of the Latino Center of the Midlands, said of lessons learned last week at Chapman’s Regency area commercial kitchen.

The salsa project helped top off this group’s summer-long Siembra Nebraska internship program that, overall, put 65 young people into worksites ranging from an urban farm to a Chamber of Commerce.

Large employers take notice

In the $800,000 program, paid for largely with federal and philanthropic funds, interns 16 to 21 years old from across the metropolitan area earned about $15 an hour while gaining real-life job experience.

Siembra (translation: sowing) is notable for reaching racially and ethnically diverse populations that employers say are integral to fueling a labor pipeline currently constricted with a record statewide unemployment rate below 2%.

Area employers partnering with the Latino Center say they’re hungry not only for talent, but also for a more multicultural workforce to better serve their changing customer bases, particularly as many baby boomers in skilled occupations are retiring.

“Health care, for example, isn’t about just providing a drug or a procedure,” said Shavonne Washington-Krauth, culture and inclusion manager for Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. “There is a relationship that has to happen there, and sometimes seeing someone who looks like you adds an extra level of comfort.”

A new element to this year’s summer program had some of the area’s largest employers — including Children’s Hospital, Mutual of Omaha, Werner Enterprises, Kiewit Corp. and LinkedIn — hosting the first Siembra Synergy conference.

The event this past weekend offered students time to engage directly with professionals from corporate employee resource groups who share similar cultural and language backgrounds, said organizer Berenice Escalera of Werner Enterprises. Students participated in workshops about communication, financial literacy and mental health.

The partnership is to continue, with opportunities such as job shadowing.

“The hope is to keep the interns connected with a mentor or a contact to reach out to in various ways,” said Washington-Krauth, who also serves on the Latino Center board.

Pilot program morphs

Varas expects linkage to employee resource groups to strengthen the Siembra initiative, which launched as a pilot program in 2019 with just six students focused on construction trades.

That trial year paved the way to a supervisory post for at least one intern at a local construction company. It also provided the nonprofit Latino Center with a renovated garage repurposed by interns (working with industry professionals) from a “graveyard for junk” into a space for community Zumba classes and other activities, Varas said.

When the pandemic hit, interns pivoted to an urban agriculture focus and explored ways to address food scarcity in low-income communities.

Today the worksites are more varied and offer jobs in public health, law offices, marketing agencies and more.

Varas describes Siembra as the South Omaha-based Latino Center’s way to cut through talk and put into action pathways that can boost homegrown minority representation in Nebraska professions.

He said the target intern is a high achiever who, because of family resources or responsibilities, is not afforded opportunities to volunteer, travel or amass experiences that prepare teens for careers.

Interns are recruited from Latino Center programs and other youth-serving organizations that serve all racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Varas. He said offering a decent wage, on-the-job training and connection to employee resource groups helps the program stand out.

Acknowledging the per capita expense, he said he “sees no other way” to offer the multi-faceted experience. In addition to private and corporate donors, funding comes from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the city-administered Community Development Block Grant program.

Nationally acclaimed chef

For Rivera, a senior at Northwest High School, this summer was her second Siembra season. She was about to apply at McDonald’s upon turning 16, when a friend suggested the Latino Center internship program.

Her first assignment put her at an innovative barber shop that offered free haircuts to the homeless and school backpacks to kids.

This summer Rivera worked primarily at the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a spot she said gave her a taste of the future she wants in business.

Rivera then was selected as one of six interns for the special, end-of-summer project to develop “Salsa Siembra” — a thank-you product to be given by the Latino Center to supporters and used as centerpiece bling at the nonprofit’s annual fundraising dinner.

The special sauce was made under the tutelage of Chef Chapman, whose culinary background includes his nationally acclaimed (former) Grey Plume restaurant, known for creative dishes made of local ingredients.

Another intern in that entrepreneurial-focused project was Denise Valdez-Alvarez, 18. Earlier in the summer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha student worked at Gifford Farm.

While neither salsa nor farm work might seem directly related to her dream of teaching English abroad, Valdez-Alvarez said the experience proved relevant.

“We are working as a team, building communication skills, being responsible,” she said. “Putting in the hard work can be applied to everything.”