ON a rainy fall afternoon, a noisy group of 42 inner-city youths streams out of the Student Union building at Roxbury Community College after their daily "mental toughness" orientation session. The assignment today is to apply for a learner's driving permit, open a bank account, get a library card, and pick up a pair of work boots.
Soon, they will be spending time outdoors sawing boards, climbing ladders, and banging nails as they help rebuild a shelter for homeless youths. But that's far from all they will be doing under this unique national program called YouthBuild. In alternating weeks, these young people, aged 17 to 25, will be inside a classroom taking notes, studying, and preparing for their high school equivalency tests. In their two-week mental toughness session, they are preparing themselves mentally and physically for th e hard work ahead.
The idea of the program is to give disadvantaged, undereducated youths a second chance in life.
"[YouthBuild] rolls into one program all the things that are most important," says Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild USA, based in Somerville, Mass. "On balance, you join a community, you're challenged to become a leader. You get a chance to go back to school, develop a skill and a good-paying career, serve the community by building housing, and be part of a positive peer group."
Ms. Stoneman was inspired to create the YouthBuild program after working with disadvantaged youths in Harlem, N.Y. She designed YouthBuild after an East Harlem initiative called Youth Action Program that encouraged young people to design and build community-improvement projects. In 1990, Stoneman launched YouthBuild USA, which was originally headquartered in New York City.
Besides its city chapter in Boston, YouthBuild also provides technical assistance to similar programs in San Francisco, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Gary, Ind., Tallahassee and Gadsden County, Fla., and New York.
YouthBuild is unique because it provides valuable skills for disadvantaged out-of-school youths, youngsters most often forgotten. The skills and training they receive gives them an added boost in the job market.
"The economy has changed so that entry level low-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs no longer exist," says Stoneman. "Where it used to be possible to drop out of school and do well, it now isn't."
In the tough day-to-day life of inner-city communities, young people don't always find incentives to stay in school. Jose Rivera, who has nine sisters and four brothers, lives in Boston's minority neighborhood of Roxbury. He says he quit school because no one seemed to care.
"Teachers didn't seem to care if I went to school or not," he says. "I am from a poor community. I thought the right thing to do was not to go to school but go to the parks and smoke cigarettes and drink beer."
But he entered the program less than three weeks ago and now hopes to turn himself around.
"I think it's time you wake up and say, `What's going on in our community?' " he says. "YouthBuild has a lot to offer. I'm willing to do whatever it takes so long as it keep me out of trouble and helping other people."
Students wishing to join the program must fill out applications, which are carefully reviewed. Each new group has an average of 30 students. Although women are welcome to join, 80 percent of the participants are men.
The initiative is funded by a variety of foundation grants as well as some public funding. Program advocates are especially pleased this year because YouthBuild will be allocated a minimum of $17.5 million as part of a federal-housing measure signed into law in October.
The program lasts approximately 11 months. But it often takes youths longer than the length of the program to pass the standard high school equivalency exam. Stoneman says the young people who join the program start off with reading levels ranging from fourth to eighth grade.
The youths are paid an average of $5 an hour for construction work plus bonuses for perfect attendance. Construction work involves fixing up dilapidated housing for low-income and homeless people. The program also provides youths with job training, counseling, and driver's education.
Leadership training is stressed as well. Youths are encouraged to participate in an advisory committee, for example. The committee is a small group, elected by the other youths, that meets weekly with the YouthBuild project director to discuss problems and policies.
Andrew Hahn, associate dean at the Heller Graduate School for social policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., says these leadership opportunities are important.
"Young people themselves help govern the program, and that is very different from most youth programs in which the young people are seen as passive clients," he says. The program is also valuable because it is so comprehensive, providing youths with a variety of skill-building experiences, he says.
At the end of the session, youths often take jobs in construction-related fields. But other pursue different trades and some have even gone on to college.
Mike Galloway of Roxbury, who just started in the program, says he wants to go to college to become a mechanical engineer. Another new participant, Yvette Ramos, wants to become a teacher. She says it's sad to see so many people in her community who can't read or write.
"I am a Hispanic woman, very intelligent," she says. "I said I can do this. I want to do this. I want to help my community. I want to help myself."
Antonio Taste of Roxbury is very enthusiastic about being in the program.
"In the middle of the night, I wake up and say, `Is it morning yet?' That how exciting YouthBuild has been for me."