Dorothy Stoneman knows that solving algebra word problems, concentrating on fiction and poetry, writing English compositions, and memorizing the periodic table and the laws of thermodynamics become impossible in the pain and chaos that occupies households that lack enough food or beds, that may have only one parent who has to work night and day to support the family, or where one or more adults may be gang members, drug addicts or dealers; where there may be no reliable daily routine, and nobody available to help with homework or other needs; where a parent or sibling may be in jail, an older brother murdered in the streets, or gang members have riddled the house with bullets. Too many young people are born into this chaos, through no fault of their own. Too many abandon school or are kicked out or have to leave to help support their families. Too many slip into drug abuse, are pressured to join gangs, or suffer homelessness.
Stoneman spent years operating day care centers, community-based schools, and youth programs in East Harlem before she decided, in 1978, to launch a program for young people to build a network of positive peer support to take charge of their lives, succeed in school, and work to improve their communities by building affordable housing for their neighbors. As she said, “In our community we had hundreds of abandoned buildings, thousands of idle young people, and many homeless people. The solution was obvious: hire the young people to rebuild the building to provide homes for the homeless and at the same time to get back on track to rebuild their own lives.”
Over the next decade, Stoneman’s program evolved to become YouthBuild, a national nonprofit youth- and community-development program that, with public and private funding (including from the Open Society Foundations), gives young men and women who have left school without a diploma—many of whom had suffered foster care, the juvenile justice system, welfare, various forms of neglect or abuse, or homelessness—an opportunity to earn a GED or high school diploma. At the same time they can master a trade, earn money, gain job experience, develop leadership skills, build a positive peer group, set academic and career goals, internalize the ethic of service, and take responsibility for changing the conditions of poverty in their communities.
Stoneman reported, “What emerged quickly across the nation is how deeply and universally all young people yearn to play a positive role, to be part of something they can believe in, to make a difference. As soon as someone cares about them enough to open the door to opportunity, they rush in with new hope and work hard to rebuild their lives and to give back. The positive energy and intelligence lying fallow in low income communities is enormous and unrecognized. It is our national sin and shame that we haven’t invested in unleashing this talent. With adequate investment, the power of love coupled with well structured opportunity for education and work could end poverty in a generation.”
Between 1994 and 2012, 110,000 YouthBuild students helped to construct 21,000 housing units across the United States. Participants spend six to 24 months in the program full-time, dividing their time between hands-on work under skilled supervision at construction sites and attending individualized academic classes at YouthBuild alternative schools. Currently 78 percent of YouthBuild students complete the program, and 64 percent either get jobs or enter college or other post-secondary training. There are 10,000 students each year.
One of the 273 YouthBuild programs in the United States operates in the heart of California’s Central Valley under the aegis of the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, a regional nongovernmental organization working to help low-income families and individuals acquire the skills, knowledge, and motivation necessary to be self-sufficient. Fresno’s YouthBuild students include Native Americans who live beyond the edge of poverty. They include the progeny of the earliest European settlers, the 49ers who came seeking gold; and the Okies who came seeking survival during the Great Depression. They include the sons and daughters of Hispanic farm workers who came to pick fruits and vegetables, and the children of African-Americans who moved west before and after Emancipation. They include sons and grandsons of Hmong refugees who made it to the United States after fighting with US troops in the Vietnam War.
Ismael B. was eight years old when cirrhosis of the liver killed his father. His mother raised five sons and a daughter on her own, making ends meet by baby-sitting and cleaning offices and homes. “After my dad passed away, there was no structure,” Ismael said. “Mom didn’t know what to say or do.” Ismael eventually left high school and began working to help support the family. He was employed by a concrete company in 2008, the year he was supposed to graduate from high school. He had already been arrested as a juvenile for tagging. Ismael said that he was not in a gang. He called it a group: a “You die for me, I die for you kind of thing.” One older brother, a bona fide gang member, was imprisoned for shooting five people.
After being laid off, Ismael began taking classes to work his way toward a high school diploma. But then he found a job in landscaping—mowing lawns, trimming shrubs, and weeding in some of Fresno’s affluent areas—and began working from six in the morning to five in the afternoon, which made scheduling classes impossible. By 2009, he was laid off again. Then came a time of drinking, petty crime, and idleness.
Ismael said his “group” got into conflicts with “other individuals” that started with trash talking and proceeded to fistfights. Someone opened fire upon Ismael’s home with a handgun. “They shot at my sister’s car,” he said. “It stopped running.” His family subsequently lost their home and its members had to split up. “My sister took me in and supported me for three months,” Ismael said. “She had two kids by this time.”
“I started realizing that I had to get myself straightened out. I was looking for a transitional living center and trying to find a job when I saw a brochure with information on the Fresno YouthBuild program. On December 21, 2009, they enrolled me. My routine of life began to change. I started doing better. I changed my set of friends. I started thinking positively. I began looking toward the future instead of living day by day.”
“At YouthBuild, it is all about being responsible and dedicated. If you want to do the work, you’ll accomplish what you want to do. They put you on track. They let you know what to do so you don’t slide off. They tell you exactly what the requirements are.”
Ismael worked in a pre-apprenticeship program, learning to measure, to cut wood, to hammer nails: “We also erected a couple of fences, dug a lot of holes, and moved a lot of dirt. I can build the framework of house. I can lay concrete. I can shingle roofs and install dry wall, run wiring, do some plumbing, and paint.”
One advantage of YouthBuild over simply working and going to school is that with YouthBuild, work and school take place in the same institution and schedules are strict and coordinated. The students do not have to work in one location for one big chunk of the day and then rush off to classes blocks or miles away for another chunk of time. Another advantage of this is the staff all work together for the benefit of students they all know.
Ismael acquired enough credits to get his diploma in June 2010 and finished the YouthBuild program that September. He worked for the next several months on a crew painting firefighter cabins in the forests of the High Sierras. Afterwards, he joined AmeriCorps and enrolled in the computer and information technology program at a community college, Fresno City College. “I want to be more of a software guy. City College will take a few more years, then Fresno State.”
“My mother is living with me now.”
Noel A. recalls only fragments of the day in 1999 when she was initiated, involuntarily, into a Fresno-based gang, the Bulldogs. She was seven years old at the time. The rite commenced after she innocently asked her father, a member of the gang, “What are Bulldogs?” His immediate reply was a blow to her face. Six other people jumped in and beat her up. But, Noel said, “I grew to love them, and to care for them as they have cared for me. It is protection. I am still a gang member, but not active. It is my family. These are people I can go to when I need a place to stay or someone to talk to. Not all of them, only a few. But they are all Bulldogs.”
Noel is Native American and has the name of her neighborhood, “Foodtown,” tattooed on her arm in loud gothic letters. Noel said that her mother was a “functioning drunk” and a drug abuser who made ends meet by working as a hairdresser and that her father abused drugs and sold crystal meth when he was not in jail.
“I grew up in this chaos. It is kind of a natural lifestyle for me. Something I’m used to. It is what I see as a working family. I’d wake up in the morning, brush my teeth, and hear my parents arguing. I saw my dad hit my mother many times. When they split up, my dad started abusing me. I was going back and forth between them. My mother asked me why I wanted him there. I wanted to try to change him. I wanted to see whether my love for him would change things.”
Noel lived with her mother until Valentine’s Day, 2010: “I moved out for the dumbest reason. My boyfriend had cheated and I wanted to keep an eye on him. I got caught up in drugs because that’s what he was doing. Everyone was doing it. Nobody I knew gave a shit about anything, so I didn’t either.”
The police detained Noel as a runaway. “I was called a runaway because I was not living with my mother or father,” she said. “They called my mother unfit. They couldn’t find my father. He was all messed up.” In May 2010, the authorities deposited her in the foster care of a 73-year-old woman who lived on Fresno’s outskirts. Noel ran away before the end of the summer. “The loneliness got to me,” she said. “I’ve always been social.”
“I started school on August 11 and dropped out two weeks later. I was just a year away from graduating. I was scheduled to graduate from high school early. I didn’t have time to pursue an education. I was worried about my home life. I’m smart. I know that.”
Noel took shelter in a house she called “a dope spot.”
“I stayed in the dope spot for about two weeks. And the drugs died down. Everyone went broke. My boyfriend and I went to my dad’s and I could get dope for free. I knew he wouldn’t reject me. So I started staying there. Things got worse. I saw him beat up his girlfriend. People were coming over and were up night and day, gambling, playing dice. I was high all the time. I never ate. I never slept. It was hell. My boyfriend was there and I was going through physical abuse with him.”
“That takes us to December. Then my dad got locked up. The bills, nobody was paying, everything was shutting down. I moved to my grandmother’s in Foodtown. I tried to take care of her and still stay out until 2 a.m. and smoking the pipe and trying to be back in time to put her to bed. I finally told her I couldn’t live there anymore with my boyfriend. I didn’t want to be smoking meth in her house.”
“I was then homeless for about a month. We were everywhere. We had a shopping cart with clothes, and tied our dog to the shopping cart. We went between the houses of friends and slept in abandoned houses. I got clean, but he didn’t. I broke up with him. He said his whole world came crashing down. It was an excuse for him to keep using drugs.”
Noel’s father was sent to prison on January 13 on a five-year sentence for abuse. Noel started YouthBuild on the same day.
“Since I’ve been here a lot has changed. One of my friends is a member of a rival gang, but even so I can connect with him. Now that I’m getting older I want to talk to whomever I want to talk to. Once my thing was sitting down and hitting the pipe. Now I’d rather write a poem or read a book. Now I know I can set goals and meet them. The staff here have helped me figure it out.
“I want to go to college. I start at Fresno City College this fall. I want to earn an associate’s degree and then go on to be a counselor for at-risk youth. I want to change somebody’s life.”
Tiffany C. was born in Fresno in 1993. Her son, Jeremiah, was also born in Fresno, in 2007. Tiffany was in junior high at the time. She stopped attending school to care for Jeremiah. Between feedings and naps and changing diapers, Tiffany studied at home. “During the first few weeks it was complicated,” she said, “because it seemed that whenever I closed my eyes he’d wake up. I never had rest. My mom or sister would come and take him while I slept. They would take him and bring him back.”
Tiffany also had help from her “baby’s daddy,” Anthony. He is not Jeremiah’s biological father. He is the young man who stepped up to help Tiffany raise Jeremiah. “He’s been with me all these years,” she said.
It was Anthony who also introduced Tiffany to the YouthBuild program at the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission. He was working there on a recycling program. “When I turned 18,” Tiffany said. “I came and filled out an application. I got into YouthBuild, and began attending classes in January 2011. I have to go until September.”
Tiffany and Anthony ride bicycles to school together, an hour each way. Tiffany’s first class, Construction, begins at 7:15 a.m. and lasts for an hour and ten minutes. Afterward, depending on the week, she goes to her other high school classes or to work on a housing construction site.
“I love this place,” she said. “If you need help one-on-one, you get it. I read fine. Math…I’m not good at it, but the teacher, Mr. Taylor, does one-on-one with me and I’m learning a lot.”
“I never thought I would do construction,” she said. “I’m girly-girly, and we wear steel-toe boots all the time.
“I was afraid of heights, and had to get onto a roof. But I got up there. The first time I started hammering, I hammered my finger.”
“We have done roofing and dry walling, laid concrete, installed light fixtures… I got my forklift license. They even taught me how to use a jackhammer. I was scared of that too, at first.”
“It’s fun and I got awards for high honors for working hard….Now when something goes out in my house, I know how to fix it. I might be able to build my own house when I grow up.”
“I’m the only person in my home who’s got a high school diploma. I want to be a registered nurse. So I’m going to go to college, first to Fresno City and then to Fresno State.
“My son told me a few months ago that he wants to go to school. Both of us will be going to school at the same time.”
Talking to these students made Stoneman’s words ring true. They had been through hell, but they responded so fully to the chance to learn, to belong, to be safe, to build, to set goals, to succeed, to help others. If our nation would recognize this hidden talent, and expand programs like YouthBuild to open the doors to every young person seeking another chance, where they can build a future within a caring community of adults and peers, we would all be better off, in so many ways.