Across the street from the West Tampa post office on Howard Avenue is a building that could be mistaken for an art deco diner. Inside: an assortment of hardhats, computers, lockers, demo-toilets, teachers and students.
The building is headquarters to an innovative program called YouthBuild that provides at-risk youth with marketable skills, credentials and moral support to help steady their path to success. Graduates of the program earn their high school diploma or GED as well as OSHA and National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) certification, which opens the doors to employment in construction work and other areas.
Students are encouraged to pursue higher education and employment in fields that matches their skills and passion – or “swagger” as one student called it - and are supported and guided along the way.
“Our job is not just to train them,” says YouthBuild Program Manager John Arroyo, who heads up the program. “But to change their frame of mind.”
The YouthBuild program serves 10,000 kids across 46 states nationally under different organizations. Here it is run by the Tampa Housing Authority
(THA), which appears to be a natural fit given THA’s access to at-risk low-income families living in public housing and its constant need for providing services as well as hiring contractors with the need for certified workers.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” explains Arroyo. “We are in the middle of the community.”
In the years since the program launched in Tampa in 2009, the YouthBuild program has seen an 83 percent rate of placement for participants in employment or secondary education, according to data provided.
The program is supported by federal grant money. Each three-year grant received is for over a million dollars and serves about 60 students in that time period. Harder to calculate but inarguably an excellent return on investment, is the value of changing the course of these young lives, providing true opportunity and support, and instilling the concept of a work-ethic in a population that often doesn’t learn this from their parents.
The bottom line: The program creates role models in very tough neighborhoods, while breaking the cycle of crime.
Mental toughness matters
‘At-risk’ is one of those commonly used terms that some might find imprecise. In this case, to qualify for the program an applicant must be between 16-24 years of age, lacking a high school diploma and qualify as low income. Though a criminal record is not a prerequisite, 80 percent of the Tampa participants have some sort of history with the law, often multiple incidents, and often starting very young.
That kind of start in life places participants at risk for a pretty difficult future -- not to mention the havoc they can sometimes create for others -- without some kind of positive intervention.
The program directors look for kids who truly want to turn things around. This involves a 10-day screening process referred to as “mental toughness” in which candidates have to prove themselves worthy.
“It’s like a mini boot camp -- its physical and mental,” says Arroyo. “We have to make sure they really want to change their lives.” He says about 85 candidates show up for roughly 20 slots, but the mental toughness screening narrows it down -- a lot. There are 23 students enrolled in the current cohort.
YouthBuild participants attend classes daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and receive a modest stipend for their efforts. There are other monetary incentives -- similar to a bonus system -- built into the program to reward and motivate continuing efforts toward gaining and maintaining higher education and/or employment.
The program is designed to last about eight months, plus plenty of follow up after graduation. But typically within four months students are starting to interview and get hands-on job experience through different opportunities.
A hand up on the journey to success
There are some common denominators among the kids entering YouthBuild: “The neighborhood, no direction and no father equals problems,” says participant Allen Thurman.
Thurman had run-ins with the law since he was in third-grade and his father, though present, did not play a big role is his life, at least as far as discipline goes, he recalls.
After a stint in prison on drug-related charges, including six months in “the box” (solitary confinement), his best friend told him about YouthBuild. Together they took turns riding each other on the handlebars of his bike to the bus, and then the rest of the way to class every day.
When it came to the mental toughness screening, Thurman took it as a personal challenge.
“I have always been a hard worker,” he says, in a tone that implies he is not sure where he got the characteristic. He felt he had an obligation to do better than everyone else because, “I was the only person who don’t smoke, don’t drink.”
He passed the screening. After that he showed up at YouthBuild early and stayed late. There were days “where it was pouring down rain, I’m soaking wet, but I’d be there.”
The YouthBuild managers attest to Thurman’s determination and reliability.
When an opportunity arose to work on THA’s new ENCORE! Tampa
construction site, the first candidate failed a drug test. YouthBuild Program Coordinator Damien Beal says they knew Thurman, who’d been in the program about four months, was the man for the job.
“We bet our program on him!” he says with enthusiasm and affection for the young man. Beal and his team knew Thurman was clean, eager and reliable.
And then Thurman soared.
After proving himself on the first job, the company, Space Coast Fire and Safety
, hired him into a full-time position with paid vacation and benefits. They gave him more training and certifications. And after a year, they gave him a work truck to use (“I was the only apprentice with a work truck,” notes Thurman).
The company is now entirely sponsoring his degree in Fire Engineering at Seminole State College
. He is on track to graduate in May and will then be eligible to work as a foreman for the company.
Thurman says YouthBuild helped him “grow up” and that there is nothing that would get him off track now. Taking care of his kids is a top priority he never wants to miss, he says.
“Hard work always pays off,” says Thurman, “if you work hard, people are going to see that.”
Hands-on youth building
On a sweltering day in mid-August, two diligent, enthusiastic YouthBuild students, Bryan Taylor and Demetrius Golden, were dispatched to Robles Park Village, a 432-unit low income housing project run by THA, to install smoke detectors in every bedroom as per new fire code.
Taylor, 23, quickly obtained his high school diploma through YouthBuild and says he wants to go to college to learn about construction. He is currently lining up his enrollment at Hillsborough Community College
(HCC) for January and seems delighted over his experience at YouthBuild and the support he has received at every turn.
“They really help broaden your horizons, seeing different things, meeting new people and organizations,’’ Taylor says. “It is way more than I expected!”
Golden, 22, is looking toward the legal profession. He starts at HCC in September, aiming to become a paralegal as the first step and hopes to eventually become a lawyer and sports agent. He is a committed “full-time dad and uncle,” loves football, and feels like YouthBuild has his back and will help him on his path even after he graduates from the program in October.
Practical skills, real jobs
Robles Park Property Manager Todd Guy says he was grateful for the help from Golden and Taylor and the other YouthBuild workers because he was understaffed to meet the Tampa Fire Marshall’s urgent requirement to service the 900 bedrooms.
“It is also a great opportunity for them because it is hands-on and interacting with tenants who are potential clients for them,’’ says Guy. “It’s a real world opportunity.”
Guy says that Arroyo and YouthBuild help their students cultivate a work-ethic that the kids carry with them to their future jobs, often the first time they’ve ever had a job.
Guy should know. On his staff is one of the first graduates of YouthBuild. Graduate Lynn Potts, whom Guy praises as “having a great attitude,” notes that Potts was recently awarded Employee of the Month. Potts has been employed at Robles Park for over five years.
“Lynn has a natural drive that has allowed him to succeed,” says Guy. “He took the training he received in YouthBuild and put it to use here. He comes to work to work, he wants to learn, he wants more training. That’s the type of guy he is.”
Lynn Potts was 18 and “completely involved in the wrong activity, not paying attention to life” when he heard about YouthBuild while visiting friends. A light went on for him. At first, he was told he wasn’t eligible because he wasn’t a resident of the housing project. He showed up anyway and with his persistence, eventually got in.
Potts graduated from YouthBuild with his GED and certifications, and has been working in facilities management at THA for over five years now. He volunteers at his children’s schools and regularly attends their football practices, and plays softball for fun. The hardest part? “Learning self-discipline: You’ve got to push, push, push, put that dream to work,” he says. “It was well worth the fight for me.”
Potts says he was motivated to succeed by the promise of relief from struggling in life, breaking the cycle of poverty and being a role model for his three boys -- something he did not have growing up. Both of his parents spent time in and out of the prison system.
“When somebody asks my son where his father is,” notes Potts, “he’ll say: 'He’s at work'.”
For Potts, there’s an awful lot of pride and meaning behind his son's direct and simple answer.
This story is supported by the Tampa Housing Authority. Pasted below are links to other stories supported by THA. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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