WASHINGTON – In a small classroom in an old Anacostia school house, six students work on vocabulary-building exercises, their eyes alight with excitement.
Their teacher, Denise Stafford, reads sentences and asks the students to deduce their meanings. For one sentence that mentions a pungent odor, the students call out synonyms such as “nasty” and “loud” to describe the smell.
Kimberly Simms, 19, jumps up and asks to write the sentences on the board. When she pauses to ponder the spelling of a word, her classmates shout out suggestions.
A year ago, these eager students were high school dropouts. Some were in trouble with the law.
Now, as participants in a HUD-sponsored program, they are back in classrooms, preparing to get their high school equivalency diplomas and learning job skills.
The program – Action to Rehabilitate Community Housing’s YouthBuild – also provides leadership training, counseling, community service projects and construction training for at-risk District residents between the ages of 16 and 24.
Part of a national program, it is designed to increase the low-income housing stock and turn around the lives of disadvantaged youths, said Sharon Gautier, director of training and counseling at a training center in Washington, D.C.
For the 18-month program now underway in the District, only residents of Ward 8 – the most economically disadvantaged area in the city – were eligible, Gautier said. Twenty-six students are enrolled.
Divided into two groups of 13, the trainees spend alternate weeks in the classroom and at a construction site, in the 400 block of Mellon Street Southeast. There, they are rebuilding two red brick homes that will provide housing for low-income or homeless people.
Before beginning work on the 50-year-old homes, the trainees received intensive hands-on training on skills such as hammering, installing insulation and weathering wood.
At the construction site, they have erected a fence around the two connected homes and a fire wall between them. Later, they will place drywall over the cement fire wall, install electrical wiring and rebuild the roof.
Leon Edmunds, one of YouthBuild’s program directors in Washington, said the construction project helps trainees gain confidence and grow as leaders.
“The participants are actually able to see something that they did,” Edmunds said. “That’s part of the beauty of the program.”
Before she joined YouthBuild, Simms – one of three females in the program – never considered herself a leader. She dropped out of Prince George’s County’s Parkdale High School when she was around 14, she said.
She had smoked marijuana and had a bad attitude, she said.
“I thought I was a follower, because I used to go behind everyone else’s steps,” she said.
But now, she said, she is discovering her leadership abilities. Because of her skills in cement masonry, which she gained from a federal job program, other trainees look to her to help them lay bricks.
She said many people are surprised by her interest in construction work because of her petite frame and her gender.
“It’s not a man’s job,” she said. “It’s a woman’s job, also. If a man can do it, a woman can do it, maybe even better.”
The first YouthBuild program was launched in 1978 by a former teacher, Dorothy Stoneman, in East Harlem, N.Y. By the late 1980s, the program had been expanded across the country, and altered to focus on high school dropouts.
HUD began providing grants for YouthBuild programs in 1993. Since then, 544 housing units have been built or rehabilitated by YouthBuild trainees, according to program figures.
Ninety-five percent of the program’s graduates have gotten jobs averaging $7 or more an hour, according to YouthBuild statistics.
Stoneman, president of YouthBuild U.S.A., said the program’s emphasis on responsibility and leadership helps transform participants from destructive members of the community into more positive figures.
“Participants decide that they’re part of a community and they have responsibility for it,” she said.
Hamza Keita, 21, and Kenny Clark, 20 – two ARCH YouthBuild trainees who serve as foremen for the D.C. construction project – said they have noticed some changes in themselves.
“I’m not as aggressive as I used to be,” said Keita, a high school graduate who plans to return to college and study marine science. He said he has become a better team player and is more receptive to constructive criticism than he was before.
Clark, who aims to work as a firefighter or an electrician, said he has “opened up more since being in the program” by sharing his opinions during group counseling sessions.
Funds for the program could be cut by Congress, but program directors are already planning ways to make due with less next year.
A House-Senate conference committee has proposed cutting $30 million from the national program, leaving it $20 million in federal funds. ARCH YouthBuild in the District would take a $10,000 cut, its directors said.
The cuts would mean the ARCH training center would accommodate 40, rather than 50, new trainees. Each would receive a $200 bi-weekly stipend, instead of the current $230.
The trainees went to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to protest the $10,000 cut, Gautier said. “They knew their program was safe,” she said. “They were concerned about the kids coming behind them.” -30-