YouthBuild: New Start for Young Adults Disadvantaged Students Gain Skills While Performing Community Service

Article excerpt

ON a rainy fall afternoon, a noisy group of 42 inner-city youths streams out of the Student Union building at Roxbury Community College after their daily "mental toughness" orientation session. The assignment today is to apply for a learner's driving permit, open a bank account, get a library card, and pick up a pair of work boots.

Soon, they will be spending time outdoors sawing boards, climbing ladders, and banging nails as they help rebuild a shelter for homeless youths. But that's far from all they will be doing under this unique national program called YouthBuild. In alternating weeks, these young people, aged 17 to 25, will be inside a classroom taking notes, studying, and preparing for their high school equivalency tests. In their two-week mental toughness session, they are preparing themselves mentally and physically for the hard work ahead.

The idea of the program is to give disadvantaged, undereducated youths a second chance in life.

"{YouthBuild} rolls into one program all the things that are most important," says Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild USA, based in Somerville, Mass. "On balance, you join a community, you're challenged to become a leader. You get a chance to go back to school, develop a skill and a good-paying career, serve the community by building housing, and be part of a positive peer group."

Ms. Stoneman was inspired to create the YouthBuild program after working with disadvantaged youths in Harlem, N.Y. She designed YouthBuild after an East Harlem initiative called Youth Action Program that encouraged young people to design and build community-improvement projects. In 1990, Stoneman launched YouthBuild USA, which was originally headquartered in New York City.

Besides its city chapter in Boston, YouthBuild also provides technical assistance to similar programs in San Francisco, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Gary, Ind., Tallahassee and Gadsden County, Fla., and New York.

YouthBuild is unique because it provides valuable skills for disadvantaged out-of-school youths, youngsters most often forgotten. The skills and training they receive gives them an added boost in the job market.

"The economy has changed so that entry level low-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs no longer exist," says Stoneman. "Where it used to be possible to drop out of school and do well, it now isn't."

In the tough day-to-day life of inner-city communities, young people don't always find incentives to stay in school. Jose Rivera, who has nine sisters and four brothers, lives in Boston's minority neighborhood of Roxbury. He says he quit school because no one seemed to care.

"Teachers didn't seem to care if I went to school or not," he says. "I am from a poor community. I thought the right thing to do was not to go to school but go to the parks and smoke cigarettes and drink beer."

But he entered the program less than three weeks ago and now hopes to turn himself around. …