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When students first arrive at YouthBuild Lawrence’s headquarters at 355 Haverhill Street, they usually come bearing a lifetime of hardship. Some were raised in abusive families and did stints in the foster care system. Some once sold drugs before spending time behind bars. Still others were defeated by learning disabilities their teachers and schools were poorly equipped to handle. And considering where many of YouthBuild’s new arrivals expected to end up, the changes they make
are all the more remarkable.

“When they come into the program, and we ask them, ‘Where do you see yourself in the future?’ so many of them, unfortunately, say that they see themselves either dead or in jail,” says April Lyskowsky, the program’s director. “After they graduate from YouthBuild, they start to care about themselves and they want to do something with their lives. They find hope.”

YouthBuild USA provides education, job skills, and real-world work experience to teens and young adults who need it most. Around the country, YouthBuild participants have built and rehabilitated more than 28,000 units of affordable housing. On the North Shore, the local YouthBuild Lawrence program marks its 20th anniversary by doing the same work it’s done all along: building homes and changing lives.YouthBuild began in 1978, when founder and CEO Dorothy Stoneman organized young people in East Harlem, New York, to renovate a dilapidated tenement building. Today, YouthBuild USA, a national nonprofit headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts, supports 260 local programs in the United States, fueled with funds from government agencies and private supporters. The specifics of each independently operating program vary by location, but the population is the same: 16- to 24-year-olds who are escaping hardship, whether it’s an abusive home, substance abuse, a criminal past, or unemployment (93 percent lack a high school diploma). “The overarching mission of YouthBuild USA is to unleash the intelligence and positive energy of low-income youth to rebuild their communities and their own lives at the same time,” says Eva Blake, senior director of Green Initiatives at YouthBuild USA.

And while some YouthBuild programs offer studies in healthcare and technology, construction is a particularly viable field for hands-on learners, whether the goal is a good job or a degree in building science or a related field. To get there, each YouthBuild student navigates a curriculum evenly divided between time spent in the classroom and on the job site. Throughout the program, students receive counseling and case management for debt, childcare, legal issues, and other obstacles. “When a young person gets a chance to work on a property that’s been run down, beat down, and abused, through the process of repairing and rebuilding it and making it a high-quality environment for a low-income family, that mirrors the work they’re doing in their personal life,” says Chris Cato, YouthBuild USA’s Green Initiatives project manager.

YouthBuild Lawrence is funded through the Department of Labor and is among the alternative youth programs under the auspices of the Lawrence Family Development and Education Fund, which also include an AmeriCorps program and a family center that offers adult education classes. YouthBuild Lawrence first began in 1996, operating out of Lawrence Public Library before students rehabbed its current home at the historic Orange Wheeler House. Since those humble beginnings, more than 600 students have each spent approximately 18 months cycling through the program.

April Lyskowsky, a Lawrence native, first found out about YouthBuild Lawrence from her neighbor, who was the organization’s construction manager at the time. Fresh out of law school, Lyskowsky started as a volunteer for the organization, putting together workshops that gave students jargon-free primers on common legal issues. In time she came on board as a full-time staff member, and five years ago, Lyskowsky became Director of Alternative Youth Programs for the Lawrence Family Development and Education Fund. She embraced YouthBuild’s approach of giving non-court-ordered, no-strings-attached assistance with education, job skills, and career development to a population in need. “None of these young people wanted to be here,” she says. “Unfortunately, they faced life challenges that, a lot of times, were out of their control.”

At the moment, YouthBuild Lawrence has 33 students from the city and around the Merrimack Valley, each of whom follows a similar path through the program. It starts with an orientation stage called Mental Toughness, during which new students acquire IDs and birth certificates, learn about their community, and tap into their own ambitions and aspirations. (As a matter of policy, students aren’t sent home for acting out, Lyskowsky says.) Next, with the aid of in-house instructors, the students split their time between the classroom and the job site. In the classroom, the approach is problem-based learning that covers a comprehensive curriculum of math, science, and other subjects aligned with Common Core standards, with teachers supplying students with regular feedback before the students test for their GED.

Outside of the classroom, students receive pre-apprenticeship construction training and learn the basics of hand and power tools, green building principles, OSHA certifications, and a host of other job skills and credentials, like First Aid and CPR training. “After the CPR training, they’re waiting so anxiously for that [certification] to come in the mail,” Lyskowsky says. Additionally, students spend time in career development and life skills workshops, and before finishing the program, each student completes 450 hours of community service.

The construction sites are where the students bring their newfound purpose to bear, building homes from scratch under the watchful eyes of trained mentors. Students practice their skills in a construction shop before heading to the job site, where they complete all of the excavation, framing, roofing, trimming, and every other step required to bring a home to fruition. In general, Lyskowsky says, it takes about two cohorts of students to build a house. Within the last four years, YouthBuild Lawrence has completed one single-family home on West Street and is in the midst of building another such home a few doors down, both of which serve as affordable housing for first-time homebuyers. In the past, YouthBuild Lawrence has collaborated on renovations, repairs, and other projects with agencies like Habitat for Humanity and the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council.

But through the 20 years that YouthBuild Lawrence has existed, the program has produced more than homes: It’s also turned hard-luck stories into redemption tales. Recently, there was the man who, after overseeing drug sales on four street corners for years, turned out to be a natural leader who flourished on construction sites; he became a YouthBuild instructor who climbed the organization’s national ranks. There’s the single mother from one of Lawrence’s poorest neighborhoods who earned her GED through YouthBuild Lawrence; having then earned her associate’s degree in criminal justice at Northern Essex Community College, she’s now working toward a career in law enforcement. Countless others have taken jobs in healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and other sectors of the workforce.

And increasingly, Lyskowsky says, new recruits arrive after hearing about how their friends and relatives turned their lives around during their time with YouthBuild Lawrence. “The program is about transformation,” Lyskowsky says. “And from the beginning until the end, we focus on baby steps to create that transformation.”