Reclamation Project

Youth Build works to rebuild lives as it rebuilds the city

Youth Build executive director Bob Brandhorst sits in the Youth, Education and Health in Soulard (YEHS) lunchroom. It's not the most attractive setting, rows of long tables in a room with no windows, the walls covered with dreary wood paneling. But it's a room that serves its utilitarian purpose as a place for 20-25 area senior citizens, most of Eastern European descent, to receive a square meal -- another 72 meals are delivered each day. Martha Moore, who provides transportation for the seniors, is in the kitchen. She knows what to do when she sees a reporter's notebook open. Apparently the RFT had done a story about YEHS a few years ago and was instrumental in helping the organization get a much-needed stove. "We need a freezer now," she says.

Brandhorst is amiable, squarely built; he sports a well-trimmed white beard, but there's not much hair left on top. He has the energy that's found in those who've committed their lives to helping the underprivileged -- a healthy combination of enduring optimism with a leavening of irony.

Brandhorst remembers the Soulard of the early '70s, when YEHS began, when the now-popular historic neighborhood was yet another poor, neglected section of the city. Then he witnessed the area being threatened by gentrification in the late '70s and early '80s. He became a developer of moderate-income housing out of necessity, he says, back when the city could receive bonus dollars from the federal government for knocking old houses down. He's worked closely with the Landmarks Association's Carolyn Toft through all these years to preserve neighborhoods, keeping the bulldozer away until the city attained enlightenment and redevelopment began. Now they're working together with Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th) to get the Bohemian Hill project moving, 119 new homes adjacent to Soulard designed by architects Jo Noero and Don Royse ("Shelter from the Norm," RFT, March 3).

Youth Build, Brandhorst explains, was begun 20 years ago in East Harlem. Through Youth Build, high-school dropouts ages 16-24 take part in rebuilding the city. They learn construction skills as they rededicate themselves to their educations. Students spend a week on the work site -- for which they receive a stipend -- and a week in the classroom, studying for their GEDs. Members of a class of citizens who might otherwise be shunted into service jobs are shown that broader opportunities are at hand -- jobs far beyond minimum wage. Eventually, says Brandhorst, "some of them make more than anybody who works here, which is wonderful."

Potential students find out about the program by word of mouth, juvenile courts, probation-and-parole boards, various social-service agencies. Brandhorst says that when radio station Majic 105 broadcasts the Youth Build PSA, "we're swamped, even if it goes on at 3 o'clock in the morning. If we were here at 3 o'clock, they'd be calling."

The students participate in the program for at least 10 months, sometimes as long as 24. "It's a short time to turn someone completely around," Brandhorst admits. "There are a lot of family issues, peer issues in their home environment. It's a lot to overcome in a year."

One asset is the neighborhood itself. "Coming to our neighborhood is exciting to them because we don't have gangs," Brandhorst explains. "We don't have shooting galleries on the corners. This whole issue of 'colors' is gone. They can relax. They don't have all that potential violence to contend with."

To enter the program, applicants must test at a sixth-grade level. Fifty percent of applicants test below that level. "That's tragic," Brandhorst comments. "That's a function of our educational system." A pre-Youth Build program has been established to tutor those who fail. Remarkably, some people advance three grade levels in six to eight weeks. "It's because of the small student/teacher ratio, which has a lot to do with it," Brandhorst says. "But it can change that fast, which tells us a lot about dealing with these issues. In a relatively short time, you can make some dramatic progress."

Brandhorst is especially optimistic these days because -- as rarely happens -- the laws of supply and demand are working in Youth Build's favor: There's a lot of construction slated for this spring in the region but a shortage of workers.

The prospect of the Bohemian Hill redevelopment is especially exciting to Brandhorst. If the entire project were to get financing, it would provide a single site where students could concentrate their training. It's not a done deal -- far from it. "To do a development takes five years," Brandhorst says, "to acquire the property, to design, to finance -- then it takes months to do the project."

But many of the hurdles have been crossed. Brandhorst lists the possible financing sources: the Carpenters Union, Fannie Mae ("They would like to be the savior, so we have to figure out what Fannie Mae has done in other cities to save neighborhoods -- haven't found very good examples yet, but there may be one"), Source One Mortgage, Legal Housing Services, Catholic Charities, Mercantile Bank -- Brandhorst can name these off the top of his head.

"Not only do we want to build attractive, energy-efficient, desirable contemporary homes -- compatible with historic buildings -- but we also want them to be as cost-effective as possible. One of the problems the city has had is, whether they renovate an apartment or a house, they're spending $165,000 a unit. For most of the programs they work with they can't sell the house for more than $80,000, which means the taxpayers have to provide a gap of $85,000. That is not cost-effective."

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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