#102 Nov/Dec 1998

YouthBuild: Building Homes and Futures

Walking with his friends through his neighborhood in East Harlem, New York, Darnell Smith leads them past a building on 2nd Avenue and 118th St., to proudly point to the […]

Walking with his friends through his neighborhood in East Harlem, New York, Darnell Smith leads them past a building on 2nd Avenue and 118th St., to proudly point to the work he has done there. Less than a year ago the building was uninhabitable. Now it’s just a couple of months away from being home to some formerly homeless families, thanks to the work of Smith and 39 other young people who’ve spent the last year working on the building as part of their participation in the YouthBuild program. “It feels so good to give something back to this community that I’ve gotten everything from,” he says.

Less than a year ago Smith, 22, was living at Covenant House and trying to find “a McDonald’s type job,” he says, wondering if he could make that kind of work support him, his wife, and his two children. Today, he’s announcing to his friends on the job site that he has been hired as the very first employee at a new Home Depot in Queens, earning $9 an hour.

Standing next to him, in a room in the building on 118th St. that she framed, put the sheetrock on, taped and painted, Irene Sanchez, 20, says she has had quite a year as well. A year ago she couldn’t imagine herself doing construction, and now she loves it. More importantly, she says, she’s “changed her whole attitude” and is more motivated than ever before, and she’s eager to go to college next September.

“A year ago I couldn’t get two words out of her,” says Maurice Good, dean of student affairs for YouthBuild, of Sanchez, who now makes it a challenge for a visitor to get a word in edgewise as she talks about how YouthBuild has changed how she sees herself and what she dreams about, and how much confidence she’s gained in herself in the past year.

Diplomas, Jobs, and Homes

Smith, Sanchez, and the other 38 youth involved in the construction in East Harlem work with Youth Action Programs and Homes, Inc., host of the Harlem site of  YouthBuild, a national program linking youth development and community development. YouthBuild gives its participants – youth ages 16 to 24 most of whom have not completed high school – the opportunity to obtain their high school general equivalency degree (GED) while developing construction and job readiness skills through hands-on construction work, rehabilitating and building housing for homeless, and low-income families.

The program began in East Harlem 20 years ago as Youth Action Program, and became YouthBuild in 1988 when it expanded nationwide. Soon after, HUD took notice of the program and offered funds to replicate it in more cities. Under the leadership of Dorothy Stoneman, who today directs YouthBuild USA, the program has 108 sites. YouthBuild graduates number roughly 20,000 and can point to more than 2,000 units of housing they’ve completed.

“The program grew out of an effort to engage young people in change,” Stoneman says. “How do you unleash the positive energy of young people who are marginalized and idle?” What began as a volunteer program evolved into a job training program because of the number of young people who needed better opportunities, she says, and the program gradually was transformed from an energetic onslaught of volunteers into a carefully crafted alternative school. “If we had started as a job training program we would have fallen into treating people as clients,” she says. “Instead we did it in a way where young people come for the purpose of finding a job or getting their GED, and we turn them on to being part of a movement for equity and justice in their community.”

Elija Etheridge is executive director of the Youth Action Program in East Harlem, which hosts that neighborhood’s YouthBuild site, and is also president of the National YouthBuild Director’s Association. Prior to coming to New York, he started the first YouthBuild site in Maryland, and ran the site in Baltimore’s Sandtown/Winchester neighborhood for two years. “YouthBuild keeps the young people in the community as symbols of resurrection and transformation to their friends and to the entire community,” he says. “A lot of the kids who come here weren’t doing anything before, they had no positive engagement.”

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

“Yesterday I learned that four of them [this year’s East Harlem YouthBuild group] have been accepted into Morgan State University, and they’re all the first generation from their families to go to college.” Before coming to YouthBuild, Etheridge says, college wasn’t even a dream for them.

YouthBuild is, at its core, a collaboration with young people, he says, not merely a program for them. The youth are involved at all levels of the program from serving on the board of the national organization, to managing the local sites, to interviewing prospective new participants, to doing the actual work on the sites. “It’s not tokenism,” he stresses.

Measures of Success

In 1997, 64 percent of the young people who entered YouthBuild completed the program – a total of 4,600 youth at 100 sites in 34 states. Forty percent of the participants got their GED, 82 percent were placed in jobs following graduation – about half in construction – averaging $7.53 an hour, and six months later 84 percent were still employed. “When we started we were told that the best you could expect for retention was 25 percent after six months,” Stoneman says.

As impressive as the numbers are, Stoneman emphasizes that that’s only one measure. “We want to gauge ourselves on the extent to which we produce young adults with an attitude of a permanent role model and leadership in the community, who are going to be involved in civic life. We judge ourselves quite a bit by the subjective level of energy and enthusiasm generated, by the young people saying ‘This is what I want to do. YouthBuild changed my life.'”

“We fill a gap that no other program fills,” says Stoneman. “There’s no other national program that has an equal measure of job training and education that’s community-based and won’t turn away young people just because they have a criminal record.” Most programs train people for jobs that don’t exist, adds Etheridge, and teach people job-related skills but don’t help them develop the lifeskills needed to stay employed. YouthBuild is “a truly comprehensive program,” encompassing everything from initial “soft skills” training to alumni services.

The Challenges of Change

At the local level, YouthBuild affiliates partner with housing providers – a CDC, Habitat for Humanity, or even a for-profit developer – and take the lead on the construction management, hiring union journeymen to do the training. “The communities we’ve worked in have been completely receptive,” says Stoneman. “We’re bringing money and labor and training and housing into areas that need it.”

A typical site has about 40 young people enrolled at once, says Stoneman, but sites can range from as small as 14 to as large as 192. A few sites have tried to employ the model – what Stoneman calls “equal parts education and job training and counseling and community” – in fields other than housing, but none to the same level of success.

 There are two possible routes for a community that wants to initiate a YouthBuild program. An organization or individual can approach the national office on their own, and if YouthBuild USA grants permission for them to use the YouthBuild name based upon criteria built around the principles of the organization, they begin to raise money and build the programs themselves. Alternately, HUD’s annual RFP offers $700,000 to recipients, and many communities apply each year.

Funded by HUD to the tune of $42.5 million for 1999 – down from $68 million in 1995 but an improvement over 1998’s appropriation of $35 million – Stoneman says all the sites have had to struggle to find funding. Non-HUD funds for each site come from foundations, other government agencies, and local contributors, and the national office has small sums of money – this year it’s $7 million – to give to sites to cover technical assistance and capacity building costs.

“There are funds out there,” says Etheridge, “but applications have to be innovative and unique,” while at the same time not compromising the program’s core of academics, leadership development, vocational training, counseling, and graduate support. “To sacrifice any of those is to not do YouthBuild.”

The East Harlem site’s affiliation with AmeriCorps means that participants receive a stipend of $232 every two weeks, and scholarships upon graduation – $2,365 for students who participated part-time, $4,700 for full-time. That’s not a grant, though; the requirements are tough. On top of their classes and studying for their GED, part-time students must put in 900 hours of community service and full-time students 1,700 hours, at least half of which must be spent on the job site and the rest doing other volunteer work in and around the neighborhood.

This year’s entering class of 70 young people has dwindled to 40 current participants. Good says the dropouts don’t leave because of the tough “boot camp” new participants go through in the first few weeks, but because they had envisioned the program as a job, not as a learning experience, and weren’t ready for the challenges of the program. That’s discouraging, he says, and the program is working to re-think some of how it presents its mission and curriculum so that young people understand its challenges as well as its rewards.

As successful as YouthBuild has been, Stoneman says there have been a handful of sites that haven’t made it. She cites over-zealousness of sponsoring organizations that didn’t really understand the complexity and depth of the program as one stumbling block some sites have run into, and occasional turf battles between organizations trying to work together to coordinate a site as another. Rural towns have had a particularly hard time launching YouthBuild sites, Stoneman says, even though there’s a demonstrated need. Transportation issues and involving enough youth to make the program viable are often insurmountable hurdles for these sites. Marijuana use among the youth is a problem as well, she says, although they’ve had almost no problems with harder drugs or with gang activity.

A Look Ahead

On December 18 Darnell Smith, Irene Sanchez, and their peers will sit at their graduation ceremony on a stage that’s set up “specifically to make everyone in the audience look up to them,” says Good. They’re leaving the program much better prepared for work and life, he says, because they’ve worked hard and learned more than just a trade. They’ve developed a work ethic, he explains, they’ve become involved in their community, they’ve helped reduce homelessness, and they’ve developed the skills they need to overcome whatever obstacles they might come across.

Calvin Cotton, 22, will be one of the graduates, and he wants to go on to study psychology and work with kids eventually. “I hated construction from the beginning,” he says, wielding a spackle knife as he puts the final touches on a wall he and two others are completing, “but my attitude has changed since doing this. I’ve learned to work with different people. You can’t beat a program like this.”

As for Smith, in five years he’d like to be working at the management level in Home Depot where he’s about to start work, and he also has plans to go to college. And, he adds, he’d like to come back to the building and meet the people living in the rooms he built. “That would feel really good.”


  • Youth Action Programs and Homes, Inc. / YouthBuild; 218 E. 106th St.; New York, NY 10029;  212-860-8170
  • YouthBuild USA; 58 Day St./PO Box 440322; Somerville, MA 02144; 617-623-9900;  www.youthbuild.org


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