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New YouthBuild Partnership: Three Campuses, One Mission

YouthBuild helps disadvantaged youth learn academic, construction and life skills through building affordable housing, community centers and other community assets. YouthBuild Newark recently created a new partnership to reach more young people through culinary arts, automotive and healthcare training. 

This story is part of a series highlighting 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees that are supporting innovative, scalable programs that place low-income youth on a path to college and career success. The Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

Why construction?

It’s a question YouthBuild staff get a lot. For almost four decades, the nonprofit has helped disadvantaged youth both earn their GED and get jobs working in construction, an idea that goes back to East Harlem in 1978.

It was there that Dorothy Stoneman, YouthBuild’s founder, asked a group of teenagers how they would improve their community if they had adult support.

“We’d rebuild the houses,” they told her. “We’d take empty buildings back from the drug dealers and eliminate crime.”  

In the past two decades, roughly 92,000 students have built 19,000 units of affordable housing through nearly 300 YouthBuild affiliates across the country. In Newark, students have developed 32 units of affordable housing since 2003.

By building homes, YouthBuild staff have found that students also get help rebuilding their own lives. Many YouthBuild students have come from tough backgrounds, including gang violence and poverty. Some are previous juvenile offenders, most never got a high school diploma, and many are at risk of dropping out of high school. Construction helps them build confidence and learn skills like teamwork, perseverance and how to see a project through to the end.

And it pays off. On average, 80 percent of YouthBuild Newark (YBN) students, for example, who take the GED test pass. And less than five percent of former juvenile offenders commit a crime while they’re in the program.

The ultimate goal isn’t to get students jobs in construction. It’s to give them the tools they need to succeed in the career of their choice. And in New Jersey, YouthBuild Newark received a 2015 grant from the Youth Opportunity Fund to expand their model to give an additional 250 students experience in the culinary arts, automotive and healthcare industries as well.

From Construction to Culinary, Automotive and Health

It’s a partnership that was years in the making.

For nine years, YouthBuild Newark contracted with the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission to provide academic and vocational training to young people. After seeing the program’s positive impact, the U.S. Department of Labor funded YouthBuild Newark to replicate its program model in four other high-need cities throughout the State of New Jersey.

This experience helped YouthBuild Newark launch partnerships with two alternative vocational schools, both of which help students earn a high school diploma and help train students for specific careers—Newark Leadership Academy for the culinary arts, and Fast Track Success Academy for automotive and healthcare.

Both Fast Track and Newark Leadership Academy provide students with academic support through Newark Public Schools, while YouthBuild Newark handles much of the student social-emotional supports, like individual counseling and group team-building activities.

Up until last year, Fast Track served more as a referral service. Students who had dropped out of high school came to Fast Track if they wanted to get back in school but lacked the credits or were too old to go the traditional route. After working with students for 12 weeks to assess what kind of academic and social support they needed, Fast Track would then refer them to another alternative program, typically YouthBuild Newark or Newark Leadership Academy.

“Every 12 weeks we were transitioning a group of students out and bringing a group of students in,” Fast Track principal Mark Comesañas said. “We were constantly recruiting.”

Many of the students coming to Fast Track have unstable lives, sometimes coming from incarceration or homelessness. “The last thing we wanted to do was create a system in which they finally started to become successful, they finally started to build relationships, and then we transitioned them somewhere else.”

So even though more than 70 percent of students finished the 12-week Fast Track program, only about half stayed with their new placement. Some students would even quit their new programs and start over at Fast Track, asking, “Why did I have to leave Fast Track?”

So Comesañas asked the school district to formally partner with YouthBuild Newark and create the Fast Track Success Academy, working with students for the whole academic year, not just 12 weeks.

This new partnership just completed its first year as a fully integrated system, with 84 percent of students successfully earning a professional certification.

Students get other benefits from this partnership, too. They receive career and college counseling and job placement assistance, along with access to resources like emergency housing and transportation assistance. For issues beyond the partners’ purview, staff refer students to a secondary network of trusted partner agencies, like one for substance abuse counseling. 

These benefits, along with the likelihood of getting a job, diploma or GED, get students through the door. But if you ask them, it’s not what keeps them there.

‘They nurture. That will always keep me coming back.’

While the number of shootings in the state of New Jersey went down last year, Newark saw them increase by 45 percent. As of August 9, 2015, there were 161 shootings in the city, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Sadly, those numbers include some of YouthBuild Newark students.  Five young people affiliated with YouthBuild’s program were killed by gun violence in the summer of 2015.

“The first one was in June,” recalled Wendy Cubano, who manages the graduate services division. “Four weeks later, to the day, on a Sunday, we lost the next one. Then one in August. Then two in September.”

For some students, YouthBuild Newark isn’t just a job training program—it’s a safe haven from the streets. But even though students feel safe at YouthBuild, they sometimes carry trauma with them into the classroom.

For example, Cubano says that young people  often tell her about their anger problems when they first arrive to the program.  She’s quick to respond, “You have reasons to be angry.”

She says a motto drives YouthBuild’s approach to working with students: “We do not place blame on them for the world that they inherited.”

Before students even start their official training, they go through a few weeks of something called “Mental Toughness,” a sort of group therapy that allows students to work out some of the trauma that many of them are dealing with.

It’s this level of care and support that students receive from the entire staff at YouthBuild Newark, Newark Leadership Academy and Fast Track Success Academy that keeps them involved in the program.

One Newark Leadership Academy student, Dennis Rodrigues, 18, gave himself the nickname, “Chit-Chat.” Before Newark Leadership Academy, he says you could barely get a word out of him. Now he describes himself as the Dr. Phil of the group, giving advice to other students on a daily basis—and getting it, too.

“The thing I learned from having a support system,” he says, “is that I have a support system.”

The staff “care about what’s going on,” Farah Etienne, 19, adds. “They nurture. That will always keep me coming back.”

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation made a three-year, $50 million commitment to boost the career readiness of 100,000 low-income youth in 10 cities across the United States.

Learn more about other Youth Opportunity Fund grantees, including City Service Corps in New York, Youth Venture in Boston, and Communities In Schools of Miami.

Apply for a 2016 Youth Opportunity Fund grant today!