Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
A couple of months ago, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) released a report looking at the positive effects that the national YouthBuild program has in helping young people from low-income households become civic leaders. The program allows participants to work full-time for 6 to 24 months toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing in their communities.
According to the report, most of the program’s alumni had dropped out of high school before joining YouthBuild. Many were involved in violent activities. Some were homeless. And “almost half expected that they would be dead by early adulthood.” Instead, many of the program’s alumni have gone on to become community leaders. More than a third have become professional educators or youth workers. Six percent now hold public office. Nearly 20 percent work as church leaders. And 90 percent say they are able to now help members of their own families.
Writing for The Huffington Post, Dorothy Stoneman, the founder and CEO of YouthBuild, relates one participant’s experience:
Xavier Jennings, a graduate of the YouthBuild program sponsored by Mile High Conservation Corps in Denver, funded by the Department of Labor, vividly described the difficulties of his life living in public housing with his grandmother who was sick with heart disease and had lost her food-stamps because she could no longer travel to renew them. Surrounded on the streets by opportunities to make money selling drugs, he entered the lifestyle, got in trouble with the law, and was expelled from school. Nobody moved to help him, until a friend told him about YouthBuild, where he could earn money building affordable housing in the neighborhood while earning his diploma and preparing for college. A way to earn money, a diploma, and skills, sounded good. He joined.
He described a transformative moment that occurred in the first couple of weeks. He went with a crew of YouthBuild AmeriCorps students to renovate the back yard of a senior citizen. She didn’t welcome them warmly. He was sure their baggy pants caused her to stereotype them. But after the young people had restored her yard, she came out the back door with tears in her eyes, carrying a tray of cookies she had just made for them, thanking them from the bottom of her heart. Xavier also began to tear up, experiencing for the first time appreciation and respect rather than blame and rejection, from the same woman who seemed to scorn them when they arrived. That moment triggered his decision to seize the opportunity to turn his life around and become a person who helped others.
This is a common experience for young people in YouthBuild, AmeriCorps, and Service Corps. Making a difference for other people is a universally inspiring human experience that works miracles for young people who have been seen as the trouble-makers in their neighborhoods. “I used to be a hoodlum,” they say. “Now I am a hero.”
[h/t Peter Levine]