YouthBuild gives young adults a chance to learn construction, job skills
GRAND RAPIDS — Junius Williams led his YouthBuild peers in a chant as they marched two-by-two down the sidewalk to their construction site on Highland Street SE.
“Everywhere we go. We let people know. Who we are. The future of G. R.”
Based on their past, the 30 men and women ages 18 to 24 did not have the best start toward success. But YouthBuild, a federal grant-funded program, has given them a second chance by combining high school completion with construction-skills training and certification.
The national program for the first time is operating locally through a partnership between Habitat for Humanity of Kent County and Bethany Christian Services. The inaugural class includes low-income adults with risk factors: high school dropouts, history of foster care or a criminal record. Several participants also have children.
During the 10-month program, the class will work with Habitat to build a five-bedroom, two-story home at 417 Highland St. SE.
“You’re going to be leaving an imprint on the community by what you do here,” Grand Rapids YouthBuild director Amber Fox told students Monday on their first day of construction.
The program began in September with a two-week mental toughness “boot camp.” Then, students started working toward their high school diploma and learning construction skills in a Habitat facility on Pleasant Street SW.
After they complete school through Wyoming Community Education, students will alternate weeks of classroom skills training and hands-on application at the job site. A case worker from Bethany is helping students make employment and education plans for next year.
Students are paid $100 a week. The program has funding for two years.
“It’s really a leadership development program disguised as (high school completion) and hands-on learning,” Fox said. “The idea is life transformation. We want them all to go on to post-secondary (education) or get a job.
“They’ve got a lot of barriers and we’re helping navigate the barriers to self-sufficiency.”
David Alflen, 24, quit school in Greenville and moved away from home because he wasn’t getting along with his parents. Since then he has worked a variety of “side jobs and dead-end jobs,” got caught with drugs and had his driver’s license suspended.
Alflen enrolled in YouthBuild “so I can make a career out of myself and not just a job.” He earned his GED and now wants to pursue building trade certifications.
“I like making something out of nothing,” Alflen said.
For Williams, an Ottawa Hills grad who dropped out of college amid personal turmoil, YouthBuild is providing training in construction and leadership as he prepares to head back to school.
“A lot of us been thinking there’s a lot of things in our community that need to change,” said Williams, 19. “We’re the first YouthBuild in Grand Rapids. We’re setting the foundation.”
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:
Hear from some of the students in the inaugural Grand Rapids YouthBuild:
• Marcus Brewer, 21, got some construction training in a vocational education program after graduating from Godwin Heights. Raised in foster care, the Grand Rapids man now wants to broaden his skills.
“I want to learn more construction,” he said. “We’re all teaching each other every day.”
• Ruben Freeman, 18, moved into a Habitat house with his mother two years ago. He applied for YouthBuild to get his GED and aspires to a career in the building trades.
“Now I want to be a plumber or something,” he said. “(YouthBuild) keeps me motivated and keeps me doing something rather that just sitting at home.”
• Gabriel Morgan, 19, is a foster child who got kicked out of high school for an alleged weapons violation. He’s getting his GED while learning construction basics that should improve his job prospects.
“I’ve had jobs here and there and I just need to get my basic trade,” Morgan said.
• Theogene Nshimirimana, 18, is a Rwandan refugee who came to West Michigan four years ago. He said his limited English ability kept him from finishing high school. He hopes a GED and basic building skills will help him earn money before he pursues a college nursing degree.
“The skills I get here will help me get a job,” he said. “YouthBuild is changing my life.”
• Kylise Stanford, 19, one of two female YouthBuild students, failed to get her high school diploma in Indiana. Now, she’s living with her mom in Grand Rapids and pursuing high school completion credits – and learning to wield a hammer.
“They really pushed me to get my diploma,” she said. “I’m happy. I’m really happy.”