Evanston native Diana Howard was skeptical when a family friend referred her to the Youth Job Center of Evanston, 1114 Church St., several years ago. Only 20, Ms. Howard was stuck in dead-end, minimum-wage jobs but thought she was “too old” to get help at YJC.

“I was proven wrong,” she says.

YJC, says executive director Sacella Smith, helps more than 1,300 young people like Ms. Howard annually, providing them with job-readiness training, job placement and career-path planning.

“It’s more than just job placement,” says Ms. Smith. “Our programs help job-seekers through every step of the employment process.”

Landing a job is not the end of the story at YJC. The agency offers support to both employers and employees on an ongoing basis and stresses the value of continuing education. “We talk about school all the time,” says Ms. Smith.

“Our message is ‘J-O-B — just over broke,’” she continues. “In 2008 you must have some post-high school training to increase your chances of not being in a minimum-wage job.”

Ms. Howard got the message. Not only does she work full time as an office assistant at a health-care company, but she is also a full-time student at Oakton Community College.

After earning an associate’s degree from Oakton, Ms. Howard plans to study communications at a four-year college. She says she loves her job and sees it as the route to a career in a way her low-wage jobs were not.

The Youth Job Center takes pride in its long history of “helping young people prepare for success in life, not just jobs.” Founded by Ann Jennett in 1983, YJC turns 25 in 2008.

YJC recently received a $50,000 grant from Gap, Inc. Currently funded equally by government, corporations and individuals, the organization knows its best advocates are its clients and employers, says development director Kim Hoopingarner. Its April 26 benefit will highlight their stories.

The agency enters its silver anniversary year much expanded from its modest beginnings – but also more focused, since a 24-member working board revised the mission statement in 2006.

Seven full- and three part-time employees, all with bachelor’s degrees and most with master’s degrees in social work, along with two Americorps/VISTA workers, now manage the agency’s four programs.

In addition, YJC operates the Outpost, a satellite office at Evanston Township High School that offers eight-week workshops on the steps necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Each in-house program is geared to a subset of at-risk Evanston and north Chicago youth. Job seekers looking to work immediately are steered toward YJC’s core placement service. Out-of-school youth enter a career program involving a subsidized skills training course or community college sequence. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can tutor in District 65 summer school classrooms. And young people seeking full-time jobs can enroll in a three-week job-training program called Strategic Corporate Alliances (SCA).

Danielle Blackwell entered SCA four and a half years ago and praises components such as résumé writing, mock interviews, instruction in the EXCEL computer program and Internet job searches. Life skills like budgeting were “really helpful,” she says. “I still use that.”

Ms. Blackwell found a job she enjoyed at Northwestern University. When it ended, she went back to YJC for help updating her résumé, then was hired as a receptionist at DePaul University. From there, she became an office assistant at DePaul, “an amazing place to work,” she says.

She has an upcoming second interview for an even better job at the university, news she cannot wait to share with Sacella Smith, with whom she keeps in touch. “I talk to her about situations in the workplace. Once you graduate [from YJC], it’s a continual process,” she says.

Molly Mullin is a program coordinator for the Out of School Youth program, which serves low-income young people with at least one barrier to employment. Increasingly, say Ms. Mullin and Ms. Smith, that barrier is a criminal record.

The program includes an intake assessment of the job-seeker’s interests and abilities, counseling about realistic goals, and vouchers for short-term skills training in fields like health-care or truck driving. YJC grant money pays for up to 200 hours of internship at $7.50 an hour, as well as for supportive services like transportation or childcare.

“It’s rewarding,” says Ms. Mullin of her job. “With day-to-day changes, we see [our clients] achieve success.”

“We celebrate successes,” says Ms. Smith. The staff rings a bell for good news and honors an employee and employer of the month. They remain “open-minded as to what success is,” she says. “Sometimes it is six months at the same job.”

Renetta Porté traces her success to SCA. She says discussions about consequences kept her from walking out on her first job after the course. Instead, she gave proper notice – and was hired as YJC receptionist.

“I wish more people knew about YJC,” says Danielle Blackwell. “The younger generation thinks they can only work with fast food. There’s so much more out there if you’re willing to put forth the effort.”