When 17-year-old Carrie Mays took the stage at Boston University’s Agannis Arena on Friday, there were whoops and cheers before she even opened her mouth.
Before more than 600 of her peers, Mays performed a song she had written called “Melanatious,” then delivered a speech about her experience as an MLK Scholar.
This is Mays’s fourth year in the summer jobs program, which sponsors more than $1 million in paid employment for 650 Boston youths at local nonprofit groups. This year, Mays is working as a community organizer for the Center for Teen Empowerment, which helps low-income youth understand the social problems they face and work to address those problems.
“Youth have been on the front lines leading change throughout history,” Mays said at the kickoff for the annual program. “And we will continue to do so.”
The program, in its 11th year, is open to teenagers who are full-time residents of Boston. Ideal candidates are between 16 and 18 and have demonstrated leadership skills.
Insurance company John Hancock is the lead sponsor of the program, which also draws support from Boston University, Partners HealthCare, The Ad Club, the City of Boston, and The Boston Globe.
Participants in the program are given access to an online financial literacy program with a focus on learning how to save. This year, that program will also be available to thousands of additional high school students who are working in Boston this summer, said Tom Crohan, assistant vice president and counsel for John Hancock.
On Friday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston spoke to the teenagers about his path to being elected, which he noted was “not a straight line.” He shared his story of recovery from alcoholism and spoke about the challenges the students may be facing, including racism and lack of economic opportunity.
“Your stories are inspiring, even though right now you probably don’t think” they are, he said.
He challenged the teenagers to change the perceptions of their communities by becoming leaders in the fight against the injustices they face.
“It’s OK to talk about racism,” he said. “It’s OK to talk about the problems.”
Program leaders, city officials, and returning participants all offered one key piece of advice: Take advantage of this opportunity.
Justina Riopelle, a returning MLK Scholar, said she took that to heart in her first year by never failing to ask questions and introduce herself to people in the office elevator.
“You never know who you could meet,” said Riopelle, a recent graduate of Dorchester Academy.
Anthony Pereira-Pomales, 17, said he is keen to take advantage of the opportunity to network.
Even before the program officially started Friday, he had already met someone new and made plans to get lunch that afternoon, he said.
“I feel like a sponge,” Pereira-Pomales said. “I’m soaking in so much from all the other people, and we understand each other because we’re the same age.”
Pereira-Pomales, who will be working with John Hancock’s sponsorship management team this summer, hopes to attend Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and study either education or sociology. He has been in foster care for 11 years, he said, and has seen how difficult it can be to find a social worker who goes above and beyond to place children in good homes.
“I want to be that person for kids,” said Pereira-Pomales, a rising senior at Fenway High School.
Mays, a classmate at Fenway, has her sights set on being an entrepreneur.
“I want to succeed in business so I can give back to my community,” she said.