In Spanish Harlem, youths restore a building - and self-esteem

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Urban rehab is not a new phenomenon in New York City neighborhoods. But how many building renovation programs can trace their roots to a group of teen-agers sheltering stray dogs in abandoned buildings? These teens hooked up with a fledgling community group that was able to help them channel their energy.

The result? Today the Youth Action Restoration Crew (YARC) is putting the finishing touches on a rehabilitation job that will yield two storefronts and four apartments in struggling Spanish Harlem. And YARC has funding from the state to begin its next restoration project. The group aims to continue: Members have their eyes on a whole string of buildings on one block.

But more important, the young people involved say, is the increased self-confidence and sense of accomplishment that has been gained in completing their building. Along the way, the original group of teens - and others who joined in - learned to build a house, speak at City Hall, and help run a youth program.

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For some, East Harlem conjures up visions of crime, drugs, poverty, and poor education. Youths here receive the brunt of such stereotyping, and often get caught up in it, people in the community say. But a meeting with the youths involved in YARC and the sponsoring Youth Action Program (YAP) brings more of an image of future community leaders than a generation lost. They sit in a room with a brightly painted sign that reads, '' 'Ain't no stopping us now,' 'cause 'we are family.' ''

There's Irene Rivera, who holds down a job while she is working toward degrees in psychology and political analysis. She plans to go to law school in the future.

Max Hernandez, who helps organize talks on current events for young people in the area, is taking a look at which college he would like to attend.

Sonia Texidor has spoken out in front of the New York City Council on behalf of a program she supports.

''This group is very important,'' says State Sen. Olga A. Mendez, whose district includes East Harlem. She says she'll never forget the first meeting she had with these teens.

''Most of the kids were 10 to 14, but I was highly impressed. They had prepared a fabulous agenda. The kinds of questions they asked about government were very good.'' Adults often underestimate the depth and vigor of concern that youths have for their community, she adds. But these ''wonderfully, politically sophisticated'' youths help ensure that East Harlem has a future, says Senator Mendez.

Some 250 youths have worked on the renovated building in East Harlem over the past five years, either as a volunteer or a paid trainee. Some, like Rosa Barrilla, may have found a career in the work.

''It went really great,'' she says of her work for YARC. Miss Barrilla did everything from demolition to roofing. Because of her experience, she was able to get a job last summer as a construction crew supervisor at a project at the East Harlem Music School.

Max Hernandez, on the other hand, is considering other career choices. But he is happy that he learned skills such as putting up studs and measuring and cutting materials. Now he is active in organizing Youth Congress meetings at YAP , where area young people discuss such topics as youth and the military, foreign policy, and sex education.

Although YARC and YAP receive adult supervision, it is the young people who set the agenda, hire the adults, and participate in fund-raising. Instead of following the usual example of adult-led programs, there was an early decision to put the program in the hands of the youths, says Dorothy Stoneman, director of YAP.

''We started asking them (the teens in the area) what they would do in the community if adults would back them up,'' she says. ''They had such strong ideas. It was liberating a terrific energy and idealism.'' These youths were interested in forming youth patrols for housing projects, doing the housing rehabilitation, and finding homes for young people who could no longer live with their families.

''We started with a young group of kids tearing down a building. We now have young adults who manage the program, write grants, and are clearly taking leadership roles,'' says Roberto Camerieri, director of YARC.

Irene Rivera is a mentor in YAP's homes-away-from-home program for youths who can no longer live with their families. The greatest service, she says, is to help teens increase self-esteem. Sonia Taxidor agrees.

''I see that young people don't have much confidence,'' she says. And a big part of the problem is prejudice against blacks and Hispanics, the group agrees.

''It begins so early in schools,'' Miss Rivera says. ''You begin to internalize that you are not worth as much.'' Students at the preparatory school she attended on a scholarship talked about becoming doctors and lawyers. But Miss Rivera says that for students at public schools, the biggest thing is to become a secretary.

Not everyone who comes to YARC or YAP becomes a community leader. But given the opportunity, many of these youths will blossom, say adults who work with them. They want work and a chance to excel. But they often say they have been discouraged. Sonia tells of her first impressions of YAP.

''They asked my opinion. I was shocked,'' she says with a laugh. Since then, she has become quite adept and effective in expressing herself. In response to a recent letter she wrote, Mayor Edward I. Koch plans to visit the renovated building in April. He will be met by youths eager to talk with him. They believe the city needs to have a more specific policy to help youth. They point out that programs like YARC have a hard time finding money.

''We've had a lot of help from the city,'' Ms. Stoneman says. ''But the city treats and views us an exception.'' The consensus here is that YAP is not an exception. YAP's Coalition for $10 Million hopes to persuade the city to provide a funding stream for other youth groups who want to rehabilitate some of the city's abandoned buildings.

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