YouthBuild AmeriCorps: A Path Out of Poverty

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Economic Opportunity
By: 
Dorothy Stoneman

Since 1994, over 23,000 YouthBuild AmeriCorps members have served their communities by building over 5,000 units of affordable housing for homeless and low income families in over 150 urban and rural communities.  They gutted and rehabbed abandoned buildings that were blights on their neighborhoods, and built whole blocks of new affordable homes.  

What is unique about YouthBuild AmeriCorps is that all the members are young people who were born in low-income families living in impoverished communities.   Due to a variety of circumstances, they had left high school without a diploma.   They were yearning for a pathway out of poverty, into responsible adulthood, but such opportunities are rare for low-income young people with no diploma and no work experience.   

YouthBuild AmeriCorps members and Corporation for National and Community Service staff work on a wall frame during an event marking the 30th anniversary of YouthBuild on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2009. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)

YouthBuild AmeriCorps welcomes them into a transformational life experience in which they rebuild their communities and their lives.  Members spend 50 percent of their time in classrooms working toward their high school equivalency diploma, and 50 percent learning job skills by building affordable housing.   Through their service building housing they earn Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards.  Thus, when they have finished YouthBuild AmeriCorps, they are ready for college and/or a job in construction, and they have a scholarship that enables them to walk confidently through that door.

At the outset, all of them were unemployed, few of them expected to earn their diploma, and none of them expected to go to college.  But after a year in YouthBuild AmeriCorps, they are reconnected to education and employment and have embraced the ethic of service through the deep satisfaction they experienced by helping others through building homes for homeless and low-income neighbors.

At the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, Xavier Jennings, a graduate of the YouthBuild AmeriCorps program in Denver, vividly described the difficulties of his life in public housing with his grandmother who was sick with heart disease and had lost her food stamps because she could no longer travel to renew them. 

Surrounded on the streets by opportunities to make money selling drugs, he entered the lifestyle, got in trouble with the law, and was expelled from school.  Nobody helped Xavier until a friend told him about YouthBuild AmeriCorps, where he could earn money building affordable housing in the neighborhood while earning his equivalency degree and preparing for college.  A way to earn money, a high school degree, and skills, sounded good. He joined.

He described a transformative moment that occurred in the first two weeks.  His team went to renovate the backyard of a senior citizen.  She didn’t welcome them warmly, and Xavier was sure their baggy pants caused her to stereotype them. 

YouthBuild Founder and CEO Dorothy Stoneman (right) smiles as First Lady Michelle Obama applauds during an event celebrating the program’s 30th anniversary on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2009. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)But after they had restored her yard, she came out the back door with tears in her eyes, carrying a tray of cookies she had just made for them, thanking them from the bottom of her heart.  Xavier’s eyes also filled with tears, as he experienced for the first time appreciation and respect rather than blame and rejection, from the same woman who seemed to scorn them when they arrived. That moment triggered him to seize the opportunity to turn his life around, and become a person who helped others.  Now he is chairman of a national council designed to increase college opportunities for other YouthBuild AmeriCorps graduates.

This is a common experience for young people in YouthBuild AmeriCorps.  Making a difference for other people is a universally inspiring human experience that works miracles for young people who have been seen as the troublemakers in their neighborhoods.  “I used to be a hoodlum,” they say. “Now I am a hero.” 

In the words of Antoine Bennett, once an inmate, then a YouthBuild AmeriCorps member, now chairman of the homeowners association in Sandown, Baltimore, “I used to be a menace to my community.  Now I am a minister to it.”

Dorothy Stoneman is Founder and CEO, YouthBuild USA, Inc., which is the national support center for more than 265 YouthBuild programs in the USA and the sponsor of YouthBuild International. Stoneman began the first YouthBuild program in East Harlem in 1978.

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