THE hard-hat crew renovating a century-old abandoned building in East Harlem is young, learning-on-the-job, and - this summer at least - trilingual. For four weeks, four women and six men from West Berlin have pooled their resources of goodwill and muscle power with those of 44 black and Hispanic trainees. They're completely rehabilitating the structure.
Working together under the teaching guidance of three expert building supervisors, the crew is slowly putting the dilapidated building at 248 East 119th Street back together again. It will serve as housing for the homeless and needy.
The project, sponsored by the Youth Action Program and Youth Action Homes, is funded with grants from New York City, New York State, and the Community Service Society.
When we visited the site, dozens of the young trainees were busily hammering, sawing, and hauling, stopping occasionally for breaks to joke and laugh together and play ball with neighborhood kids.
The trainees from abroad came under the auspices of Service Civil International, a German organization that arranges work camps for young citizens.
This is the second year that a team of young Germans has come to East Harlem to work on community-based projects aimed at helping solve the city's housing crisis.
Markus Karee, an 18-year-old high school senior from West Berlin, says he saw the work project described in a brochure and applied to come.
``I had no building skills to offer,'' he says, ``but I have liked those I have learned on this job. Also, I have enjoyed New York City and meeting so many nice and helpful people. It has been a great experience.''
Isaac Gary, 21, one of the New York trainees, applied for the one-year construction job and literacy training program after seeing an ad in a newspaper. He knew something about window installation, but has now, in addition, learned masonry and how to replace floors and beams.
``The building trade is a good one to know,'' he says with a big smile, ``and what I have learned here will help me get better jobs.''
Like the 43 trainees other in the program, Isaac has, for months, followed a pattern of working a week at the construction site and then going to school for a week. The classes will qualify him for a high school equivalency diploma.
Alvin Braithwaite, one of the three construction supervisors, normally works as a building contractor. ``On this job, I teach the trainees how to do demolition work, and also how to install flooring, put up sheetrock, plaster and paint, and do simple carpentry. And let me tell you, these kids are hard workers and very teachable.''
School classes not only teach regular high school subjects, but also starting math, remedial reading, construction theory, and the names of all building tools and how to use them.
Those accepted receive $1 an hour for the time spent in classes, and minimum wage of $3.35 an hour for the time spent at the construction site.
As they near the end of the one-year program, a job developer will help them find jobs. He'll also teach them how to conduct themselves on job interviews, how to behave on the job, how to keep it once they get it, and how to open a personal bank account.
When this group graduates in January, another will soon be chosen to continue the training program and the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings. Most urban trainees who qualify are high school dropouts who come from very low-income families and have fourth- to eighth-grade reading levels. Most important, they are eager to learn and reshape their lives.
Maria Motta, assistant to the Coalition Coordinator at the Youth Action Program, graduated from the program herself last year.
``I grew a lot through it,'' she says, ``not only from the work experience, but from the life experience. I responded to the sense of care that was extended to me, and the counseling and support that I received.
``Since I was homeless, I also filled out an application and qualified for an apartment. These are reasons why I believe in the program and have every incentive to work for it now.''
This is the third rehabilitation project of its kind to be carried out by the Youth Action Program and Youth Action Homes. It is one of six similar programs - one in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, and four in Manhattan - that are run by other community-based organizations.
All of them are part of the City Works program of the New York City Department of Employment.
Construction funds for the renovation projects are supplied by the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Program.