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YouthBuild – Building skills, self-confidence & academics

Five years ago the city of Kingsport was introduced to a new program designed to help disadvantaged young adults obtain their general education diplomas, while at the same time developing life skills that could help them get back on track and secure a brighter future on their own. Known as Youthbuild, the program earns its name from its very unique curriculum, which includes training in construction that the participants use to build a home. Divided into two groups, students in Youthbuild spend half their time on the construction site and the other in the classroom, honing their knowledge in preparation for their GED.
Working from department of labor grants, the Alliance for Business & Training (AB&T) oversees Youthbuild, which has since expanded to locations across the tri-cities, and starting last year, Mountain City. Beginning last June AB&T began putting out flyers around Mountain City, hoping to draw the interest of potential candidates for the program. At the same time, officials began working with the Johnson County Adult Education program to help find other recruits that might be suitable for Youthbuild.
One of the big draws of the program is that it pays students while they learn. In addition to having the opportunity to take the GED, Youthbuild pays minimum wage for vocational training as well as $100 a week for each week in the classroom. Bonuses are also used as incentives for attendance, program completion, and GED attainment. The program is conducted from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Of the initial pool of candidates the program is eventually worn down to a particular number. Known as mental toughness, the first two weeks in the program are designed to show those who are really dedicated to succeeding. No compensation is given for the mental toughness part of the student training, and the majority of the first two weeks are used for team building exercises and to determine the makeup of the two groups.
Many of the students in Youthbuild come from troubled backgrounds. The eligibility requirements for the program ensure that participants are between the ages of 18 and 24 and are targeted towards low-income youth. Participants sometimes have criminal records, come from difficult family lives, or may even be homeless. A few do have high school diplomas, but after being given the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) were found to have deficiencies in their basic educational skills.
The Mountain City Youthbuild has 18 participants. The program has had a high rate of success in other areas and seems to be equally successful in Johnson County. Several of the students have their diplomas and 10 have earned their GEDs. In addition to earning their degrees students also learn to complete resumes, begin applications to college, look for scholarships, and develop job search and leadership skills.
Carol Russom with Johnson County Adult Education helps teach some of the GED preparation material and the primary classroom teacher is Jean Ann Savory. Under their expert mentoring each student in Youthbuild has now been able to overcome their basic skills deficiencies, and the number of students earning their diplomas is soon to hit 100%.
The construction training that the students receive is overseen by local contractor Tim Russom, who has guided the students through the whole process of building a house from the foundation up. The home that Youthbuild students are constructing is located in the Shady Meadows subdivision, just off Highway 421. The house has approximately 1,600 square feet of floor space, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Unique to most Youthbuild homes, the Mountain City house also features a side garage.
Materials for the construction are provided through an agreement with the Eastern Eight Community Development, who is also responsible for the sale of the completed home. Eastern Eight works to revitalize troubled neighborhoods and deals regularly with low-income housing.
The Mountain City house is nearing completion and will soon be ready for its owners.
Most of the students coming into the program have very little, if any, construction experience but after working nearly 10 months on the job site, the students are able to come out of the program with a nationally recognized certificate which makes them officially ready for an apprenticeship in construction. The certificates are given out during the graduation ceremony at the end of the program, which will be held at Suba’s Restaurant on April 5th.
For many students, such as Powell Wooley and Jonathan Roark, the construction phase is one of the most rewarding aspects of Youthbuild. According to Roark, “I find it strange to see the house now. I remember when it was just a bare patch of dirt. It’s amazing to see what we’ve accomplished.”
With such success in its first year in Johnson County, Youthbuild officials hope that funding can be found to keep the program going. Unfortunately, budget cuts by the federal government may threaten its continuity. According to Wooley, “I would really love to see the program be able to stay here. There is a real need in the county for this kind of opportunity. This program really helps you clean up your act if you need it. It helps get people back on track.”
Karen Clark is the AB&T representative working with the Mountain City Youthbuild, and she also hopes that the program can be continued in the county. One of the biggest impacts that the program has is that it prepares the students to take on a serious and lasting occupation, and Clark hopes that local businesses will utilize that fact. “I would hope that businesses in the area would be inspired to give the Youthbuild students a chance, to see how they have turned their lives around and have struggled through difficult situations.”
Programs like Youthbuild can sometimes be a real wake up call in the lives of its students. For Johnson County, which suffers with high rates of unemployment, there is a real need for opportunity, especially for the younger generations that are just getting their start. Today’s economy provides harsh challenges for everyone, but young adults just emerging from high school are particularly at risk.
The experiences that students earn in programs like Youthbuild can leave lasting impressions. Through hard work and determination they can overcome monumental difficulties, and that is something they can be proud of for their whole lives.