By Nancy Cook
to an audio version of this
One third of all New Bedford high school students drop-out. A non-profit
called YouthBuild works with forty of them, teaching the teenagers the
construction trade and helping them earn their GED's. Anyone can join one of
the 225 YouthBuild's nationwide. But, more importantly, YouthBuild allows
the teenagers to envision better lives for themselves.
On a recent weekday morning, several teenagers stood in front of a two-story
house with peeling brown paint and took turns digging holes for a new porch.
The teens were learning construction techniques on the job and in between
the work, they smoked cigarettes, laughed and walked to the corner store for
cold sodas. Everyone agreed working construction beat going to school.
Abby Elizabeth Saunders
: "I dropped out of New Bedford High School my
freshman year. I found YouthBuild through my boyfriend. Before that, I
didn't have any jobs or anything. It was boring. I just sat around."
That's Abby Elizabeth Saunders, a 17-year-old with a lip ring, who left high
school after her mom kicked her out. For several years, Abby didn't do much
with her days. Now she wants to attend Bristol Community College, become a
midwife and move to New Hampshire. Without YouthBuild, she's not sure she
ever would be able to reach these milestones.
Abby Elizabeth Saunders
: "I didn't have the motivation. I didn't have the
money. I never would have put $65 down to pay for my GED."
The kids arrive at YouthBuild a variety of ways: through word-of-mouth
amongst their peers, through the court system or simply by dropping out. The
New Bedford YouthBuild receives grant money from both the federal government
and private foundations. The money helps the group buy dilapidated houses,
renovate them and then sell them to low-income first-time homebuyers.
But for many of the teenagers, renovating homes is secondary to the free
classes. Nelson Santo is a former YouthBuild member who now works on staff.
He wears a white tank top with a baseball hat askew. He says YouthBuild
succeeds where the high school has failed because it focuses more on each
: "What YouthBuild had given me was the one-on-one attention
I really needed. A lot of problems with kids these days aren't the kids'
problems, it's the school system. They were just throwing me in classes with
a bunch of punks, and it much easier for me to get in trouble. The GED
teacher was more of a one-on-one."
Most of the teens come from disadvantaged homes. Many of them also feel like
YouthBuild gives them a broader and more hopeful sense of their own
potential. Doraliz Crespo is a slight woman, with brown curly hair piled
atop her head and dark eyeliner around her eyes. She enrolled in YouthBuild
after she'd left school, given birth to a son and watched her sister die of
kidney failure. Now she says YouthBuild has helped her envision a better
life for herself.
: "I'm twenty-one and I've been working my whole life in registers
you, with minimum pay. I have a kid now, so I want to give my son a better
life than what I have. I want to go to school. This place offered me so many
things that I didn't have before that made me want to keep going to school
and go further in life."
YouthBuild staff members estimate that only two out of twelve members will
actually work in construction. Some alumni have become social workers or
nurses. Arnold Lopes, the construction trainer, says YouthBuild takes kids
who have left the traditional paths of school or work and makes sure they
don't end up in jail or on the streets.
: "We're planting seeds. We're trying to make them productive
citizens and taxpayers. This is better than being somewhere else."
Several YouthBuild members will earn their GEDs this week. Abby wants to
become a midwife. Josh would like to open a custom bike shop, while Dora Liz
wants to work as a nurse. All three hope for a second chance at a real life.
Broadcast June 22, 2006
Re-broadcast March 1, 2007
Nancy Cook reports for the Cape & Islands NPR Stations.