The Story of YouthBuild Columbus

Background

About YouthbuildYouthBuild is an at-risk youth and community development program that simultaneously addresses several core issues facing low-income communities: housing; education; employment; crime prevention; and leadership development. In YouthBuild, low-income, out-of-school young people ages 16-24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills, earn training stipends, and serve their communities by building affordable housing, in the process transforming their own lives and their places in society.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began implementing a federal YouthBuild initiative. Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (Buckeye) saw YouthBuild as a means of meeting its affordable housing mission, while expanding its operations into the education and youth services arenas.

For its first YouthBuild funding competition, HUD offered planning grants as well as implementation grants. Because Buckeye was inexperienced in several key components of YouthBuild programming (counseling, academic training, leadership development, construction training, job/college placement), we decided to apply for a planning grant so that we could develop the local resources and partnerships needed to effectively carry out YouthBuild.

We were fortunate enough to be awarded that planning grant, which allowed us to undertake program planning and establish partnerships with some of Columbus’ best providers of the various component services that make up YouthBuild: Huckleberry House (counseling); Columbus Works (academic training and placement); and Greater Columbus Habitat for Humanity (construction management). With these collaborations and an operational plan in place, the following year Buckeye applied for and was awarded a YouthBuild implementation grant. Program operations began in the autumn of 1995.

The Early Days

In the beginning, YouthBuild Columbus had few resources. Following an intense six-week GED prep program at partner Columbus Works’ learning lab, ongoing academic training took place at the OSU Extension Center on Mt. Vernon Avenue. Our first housing project was supposed to be the rehabilitation of a house on Columbus’ near east side. But one morning’s work gutting the house revealed foundation damage that was irreparable.

We needed to find a silver lining in this disaster. Here we were, just starting out, no street credibility whatsoever, and the first thing we learn is that our rehab project is a non-starter. We were afraid of losing the confidence of our students before we’d really gotten going, and decided that we had to find a way to use this as a learning experience. We held a family meeting, gave our students the bad news, and told them we’d find another housing project for them to work on while we removed the old house and got the lot ready for a new house. We also told our students that bad things happen to everyone; it’s how they’re dealt with that matters. In this case, we used it as an opportunity to teach our students why the house couldn’t be repaired. Little did we know that this lesson would soon be put to good use.

The opportunity came about a month later when our tool trailer was robbed while senior staff were out of state at a conference. Our students remembered being told that it’s how you deal with adversity that matters. So, they started canvassing local pawn shops, waiting for the missing tools to show up there. They also called the Troubleshooter Team from WSYX 6 On Your Side, which came out to our construction site and did a TV segment on the plight of our young people who were trying to turn around their lives by rebuilding their neighborhoods, only to have their tools stolen.

For the next three days, our phone rang almost constantly, with people calling up to offer us tools and money. The TV crew came back a few days later to report on Central Ohio’s amazing response to our story, this time providing a lot more details about our program. The next day, our phones started ringing again, this time with parents looking to enroll their children in our program. The bottom line is that because our students looked for a way to turn a negative into a positive, we were better off after the theft than before. In YouthBuild, that’s called a lesson learned.

Back on track, we returned to the now-cleared site of our rehab project, and built a new house. It was a hardy group, indeed, that began construction in the dead of winter, with only a porta-potty for shelter until they had framed the house. But they finished the project on time, and had the pleasure of seeing the face of a first-time homebuyer who achieved the American dream of homeownership as a direct result of their efforts.