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Learning Skills, Building Futures

by James E. Casto

Maybe Kenneth Fox Sr. says it best. YouthBuild, Fox says, "has been a big plus around here. It's put some real 'oomph' in our community."

A 71-year-old retired railroader and chairman of a local civic group, Fox now spends much of his time working on community projects in his native Fayette County, West Virginia. One of those projects is the YouthBuild program, operated by the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), headquartered in Kincaid.

YouthBuild takes unemployed young people age 16 to 24 and puts them to work repairing dilapidated homes and building new ones. They spend one week on a job site, then the next week in school, either studying for a general equivalency diploma (GED) or, if they already have a high school diploma, brushing up on their math or reading skills to prepare them for college or technical training.

"It's truly a win-win situation for all involved," says John David, long-time SALS director and one of its founders. "The youngsters get some useful skills and some direction in their life. The people in the community get better housing."

YouthBuild is a national organization that traces its roots to New York City in 1978, when a group of teenagers, under the leadership of Dorothy Stoneman, then the director of a Harlem youth program, renovated an abandoned tenement. That successful project prompted the organization of a local coalition seeking to replicate its success. Ten years later, in 1988, the program expanded nationwide. Today, there are 145 YouthBuild programs operating in 43 states. Since 1993, those programs have built or reconstructed more than 2,000 units of low-cost housing.

The SALS program in Fayette County is one of four YouthBuild programs in West Virginia. The others are in Charleston, Elkins, and Morgantown.

YouthBuild works closely with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which awards grants to local YouthBuild programs. "This is a program that has produced lots of good results," says Peter C. Minter, a community builder with HUD in its Charleston, West Virginia, office. "It helps give youngsters a trade, an education, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of what it takes to make it in this world."

Putting It All Together

YouthBuild is only the latest chapter in the efforts of the Southern Appalachian Labor School, which got its start with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1978. Originally the group's mission was worker education; it later shifted to adult literacy, with a special emphasis on aiding the region's coal miners. In the late 1980s, however, as coal mines in the region closed and unemployment climbed, SALS broadened its mission to include a broad range of community development programs.

Several youth-based programs were started during this period. One was a cooperative effort between SALS and the Fayette-Plateau Vocational Technical School that resulted in vocational students and volunteers doing housing improvement projects in the local area. From this, the next logical step was the YouthBuild grant, which SALS received from HUD in 1997. Other funding for the program has come from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, the Fayette County school system, the Pittsburgh-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, area banks, the United Way, and other agencies. Local businesses help by providing free or low-cost building materials. YouthBuild has also benefited from West Virginia's Neighborhood Investment Program, which gives tax breaks to companies and individuals who support nonprofits with donations of $500 or more.

"This isn't any big magical thing," says project director Kathryn South. "Everything here is basic stuff, but we put it together in a way that the kids can get at it. . . . This way, success and education and doing better and all those things aren't floating out there as big ideas that nobody knows how to start. It's the first step."

The young participants are paid a stipend for the time they're on the job site, then a flat $50 a week for the time they're in the classroom. The two sums are averaged and the youths are given a paycheck twice a month. Otherwise, says Vickie Smith, the program's construction manager, some might be tempted to show up for the better-paying weeks on the job and skip the lesser-paying—and generally unpopular—weeks in the classroom.

Most of the youngsters who enroll in YouthBuild are school dropouts, some have addiction problems, and some have had one or more brushes with the law. "They're society's throwaways," says Smith. "But we simply can't afford to keep throwing away our young people." Smith spends her days riding herd on as many as a half-dozen crews, each working on a project somewhere in the county.

Each crew is headed by an adult leader and includes two to five young people, who undertake jobs as simple as patching a leaky roof or as complex as gutting and remodeling an old house or building a completely new one.

Building a Better Life

In a typical day, Smith drives from site to site, checking on the progress of each crew, making sure they have what they need. Along the way she's apt to stop at a business to arrange for some materials or scout out a future site. One recent day, she stops at a house that was deemed too far gone to save. Here the young workers have already demolished the house and are at work cleaning up the block foundation that remains. Asked what prompted him to join YouthBuild, 20-year-old Kenny Taylor says he's determined to find a better life. "You think about it," he says, "and you kind of start to wonder, 'Is this it?' I know I've got to do something better, and I know I'm running out of time."

A quick school visit to confer with Joyce Snead, who teaches the participants when they're not on the job, is followed by lunch at a local cafe and a meeting there with another work crew. Crew member Brian Cunningham happily confirms a rumor Smith has heard—he's enrolling at Concord College in January.

After lunch there's a brief inspection of the house the crew is rehabilitating, then a visit to a handsome-looking house that, Smith explains, has been fashioned from a wreck that was used as a "crack house" by a local drug dealer. Then, it's off to the town of Page for the dedication of a new house. A little cluster of new homes built at Page—four thus far, with more to come—represents the program's most ambitious effort thus far. The two- and three-bedroom houses have been built on high block foundations to elevate them out of a flood plain. They're traditional in design, faced with colorful vinyl siding, with inviting porches.

Buyers of the new houses must pass a rigorous screening process, including a credit check, and meet specific income guidelines. But the fortunate few who pass muster enjoy a mortgage based on their ability to pay, not on the price of the house. And at the end of 25 years, the houses will be theirs, free and clear.

The little neighborhood's newest resident, Margaret Black, has an 18-year-old daughter, Kristen, who's a YouthBuild participant. Her next-door neighbor, Teresa Shaver, also a single mother, says she's thrilled by having her own space and privacy. Before moving to her own home, she and her young son lived in an old four-room coal-camp house with her father, brother, and sister.

The new houses bode well for the future of Page, says David. "When people own their own homes, homes that are decent and up to standard, they just start to feel good about themselves, and the community shows it. They plant gardens; they keep things neat." At the same time, David says, those young people who stick with the program also soon begin to feel good about themselves. "Many are bright. They just need some help with that first step up."

Smith says she constantly reminds the participants of what they need to achieve if they're to get her assistance in looking for the kind of full-time job she's been able to help many land. "They know they need three things," she says. "They have to have their GED, they have to be in the program for six months, and they have to be able to pass a drug test."

Patience, Smith says, is the key to success for those in the program: "I've seen this program do wonderful things, if they will just stay in long enough. I've seen kids go from dragging their feet around to picking their heads up because they know they are making something with their hands and making something of their lives. They get it, if they just stay in long enough. They see this is their chance."

James E. Casto is associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.