Youth Build

By Nancy Cook

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

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 teenager.

Nelson Santo: "What YouthBuild had given me was the one-on-one attention that 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.

Doraliz Crespo: "I'm twenty-one and I've been working my whole life in registers and 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.

Arnold Lopes: "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.