Reclamation Project

Youth Build works to rebuild lives as it rebuilds the city

Brandhorst has a talent for understatement, and he also has an infectious sense of possibility. With Youth Build grant money, a renovation can be done for $45,000. Old homes would be renovated alongside the 119 new homes in Bohemian Hill and young people would receive journeyman experience -- creating a new, thriving community, a city not so unlike what this city once was.

"St. Louis was a very European city," says Brandhorst, "very cosmopolitan. An ethnically, economically, racially diverse community. That memory is important."

Outside the cafeteria there's a flurry of activity. It's the end of a long work day. The student/workers of Youth Build, dressed in bulbous winter coats, are punching the time clock. One young woman who forgot to punch out the day before learns the hard way -- no time card, no pay.

Most everyone is heading home, which means a long bus ride for some, then picking up a child at daycare. Sherry Jones gets up at 5 a.m. to get her 2-year-old daughter to daycare and herself to the bus in time for the 7:30 morning Youth Build meeting. She doesn't get home again until 5 p.m. Jones is part of the new Welfare to Work component of Youth Build, of which there are 15 custodial and noncustodial parents, Youth Build director Joyce Sonn explains. The program is stringent about attendance, and Sonn is concerned about the young parents. "How does a parent keep attendance with a sick child?" she asks rhetorically.

A group of students congregate around the soda machine for free sodas, a privilege that comes with serving on the policy committee, whose members stay late on Tuesdays.

They go upstairs and sit around a long table drinking soda, munching on egg rolls and cookies. There's a typed agenda for the afternoon meeting. "This is a very big agenda," one exclaims. Most of the committee members are seniors who, with luck, will be finding construction jobs after graduation.

Chris Dilworth, this week's chair, begins: "We're starting off at 3:10. It was a very good day. We worked real hard on Ninth Street. We're all dirty."

The young men and women around the table all take turns talking about their day, and most everyone affirms it was a good day. One student who had been absent for a time says, "I was just happy to be on the work site again."

Armetheus Jones reads the minutes of the previous meeting. When he struggles with some of the words, his peers look over his shoulder to offer help and encouragement. The concern they have for each other is obvious. Attention is given to whomever is speaking.

They take time out from the agenda to explain Youth Build. The 7:30 morning meeting begins the day with affirmations, with reminders of why they are here. The positivism is a primary component for people who've experienced little of it in their brief lives. Sonn says the problems are "horrendous": parents who are alcoholics and drug addicts, who rely on their children as caregivers.

Verhonda Henry, whom everyone calls Ronnie, puts the emphasis of the program into the most basic terms. "We got people who care about us."

Students sign two contracts with the program: The first stipulates punctuality and attendance; the second has greater strictures, emphasizing that for student/workers to prove themselves on the work site, they must first become more dedicated to themselves. Buildings are not the only things being restored here.

Dilworth had experience working at a Captain D's before he came to Youth Build, and though he had been promoted to manager, he never made more than 50 cents an hour more than the cook. He quickly learned fast food wasn't for him.

"When I came to Youth Build," Henry says, "I was totally clueless. I can be a great leader."

A friend chides her: "That's why you got gray hairs."
The policy committee represents the program's participants in important matters, including the hiring of teachers and counselors. Youth Build is their program.

At the close of the meeting, a chair is selected for next week. Yazmenda Bishop is elected but complains that she doesn't know how to do the job. Wade Carter promises to counsel her. Appreciations are offered, most going to the visiting journalist. "I appreciate you for giving us a chance at stardom," Henry laughs.

Afterward, a few of the committee members congregate on the stoop outside. A group of black youths hanging on the sidewalk is an image that strikes fear in some, enough to generate a protracted mass exit from the city. As Chris and Yazmenda and Armetheus and Ronnie and Wade work to rebuild their lives as they rebuild the city, they must leave the meaning of that image for others to renew.

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