When Kim Phinney, senior director of YouthBuild USA’s rural and tribal development program invited me to attend AmeriCorps’ Conference of Young Leaders, I knew the participants’ stories would be more inspirational than anything we could say to the young people being honored.
Thirty of 115 Youth Build members, who came to Washington DC recently from urban, suburban and rural areas, were in town for the Council of Young Leaders elections. They shared stories of the challenges in their lives, including teen pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, drug abuse and abandonment. But they made no excuses.
Instead, they emphasized their current paths to an education and a better life. They described how they want to “pay it forward,” and help other young people stay in school and overcome many of the same challenges.
In YouthBuild, they found a second chance — in some cases multiple chances — to obtain an education, acquire marketable skills, chart a new direction to employment, and become leaders in their communities. (YouthBuild receives federal funding from the Department of Labor and has partnered with the Department of Education to give youth a voice in decisions being made related to their education.)
With the support of North Central West Virginia YouthBuild, Caleb Gartman will earn his high school diploma this spring. He wants to start his pursue of a college degree in music this fall.
Karley Holland, from Rogue Valley YouthBuild in Medford, Ore., is a passionate advocate for individual freedoms and wants to affect positive change in her community. She has earned certificates in CPR and Occupational Safety and Health, and is on track to earn her GED this spring. She plans to start college or work full time this fall.
“Life happens,” one of the students said, and with education as a foundation, Caleb, Karley and their peers are headed in a new direction with plans to affect positive change in their lives and in their communities.
Nationally, more than six million 16-to-24-year-olds are disconnected from school or work, about half of whom are high school dropouts. The average person employed without finishing high school earn an average of $20,241, more than $10,000 less than a high school graduate according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The consequences of dropping out of high school can often result in a lifetime in poverty and dropouts make up approximately half of the country’s prison population.
Disadvantaged 16-24 year olds in YouthBuild programs work full-time for six to 24 months toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, while learning job skills by building affordable housing in their communities. Emphasis is placed on leadership development, community service, and the creation of a positive network of adults and youth committed to each other’s success. At exit, they are placed in college, jobs, or both.
Many of the young people in this year’s class also have acquired a sense of civic duty and expressed a desire to assume leadership roles in the organization that gave them a second chance to achieve their dreams.
They are living proof of the power of education to change lives and break cycles of crime and poverty.
John White is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education