Building support: The first lady’s visit gets a reaction from Stoneman.
Five young men listened intently as they gathered around an instructor on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One by one, they hopped into one-piece full-body protective suits, strapped on a gas mask and goggles and took turns meticulously spraying energy-efficient foam insulation in the wooden frame of what one day will be an eco-friendly Texas home.
The volunteer workers are all members of local affiliates of the federal YouthBuild USA, the Somerville, Mass., nonprofit that provides training and support for YouthBuild programs, which are federally funded. The opportunity they had on this green-homebuilding service day – to receive potential job training while assisting others in hard times – symbolizes YouthBuild program’s mission for the past 30 years.
The difference on this day was that the 100 or so YouthBuild members, hammering, drilling, lifting and spraying, highlighted the effort of a once financially unstable program suddenly on the verge of a government-backed large-scale expansion.
President Barack Obama’s pledge to aid struggling youth through service work coincides neatly with YouthBuild’s platform – to help 18- to 24-year-olds receive a high school diploma and learn how to construct affordable homes in low-income communities around the country.
Hammering away on the National Mall.
The president designated $50 million in his stimulus package for the U.S. Department of Labor to expand the membership of local YouthBuild programs across America. First lady Michelle Obama brought the March 17 National Mall home construction to a brief halt when she stopped by to offer the students encouragement.
For YouthBuild USA President Dorothy Stoneman – whose group networks the nation’s more than 200 community YouthBuild programs – the first lady’s appearance was a good sign that the president’s campaign promise to boost YouthBuild’s overall membership from 8,000 to 50,000 participants can become a reality.
“I’m hopeful, but you never know for sure until it happens. I didn’t know for sure the first lady was going to come until she came. I don’t know for sure that the funds to expand to 50,000 young people are going to come until they come,” Stoneman said, sitting a few feet from the nearly complete frame. She cited the quality of her group’s work, the economy and the political environment as factors likely to determine whether the funding and expansion take place fully during the next few years.
“We’ve lived through ups and downs – this looks like it’s an up,” said Stoneman, who founded the first YouthBuild program in 1978.
The down periods have been much more prevalent than the ups in YouthBuild’s recent history. Youth Today reported last year that funding shortages forced most YouthBuild programs to reduce services and their number of youth participants. Some communities closed down their YouthBuild branches entirely, while others were at risk of closing and repeatedly had to turn down youth who wanted to sign up.
But the fact that these struggles happened so recently only seemed to fuel the positive atmosphere at the service day event’s closing ceremony. After longtime YouthBuild supporter Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) addressed the crowd, a YouthBuild graduate serving as the closing ceremony’s emcee asked the crowd, “How many of you guys know somebody who was turned away by YouthBuild because we didn’t have enough seats?”
All hands went up and the host asked a follow-up: “And where are they now?”
“On the streets,” shouted out a few people.
It is this process of denying membership to willing and able youths who want a high school diploma and a job that Stoneman said makes her “sick to death” and that the $50 million expansion plan would seek to correct.
In addition to the federal stimulus funds, the federal government has already appropriated $70 million to YouthBuild USA this year, up from $58.9 million in 2008.
The actual money from the stimulus plan hasn’t yet reached the program. But the YouthBuild students on the National Mall could see short-term tangible evidence of success from their six hours of alternating between working on the frame and receiving academy instruction on nine topics related to green construction.
By the end of the event, the frame was complete, ready to be sent to a Texas family that lost its home during Hurricane Dolly – a family that will now be saving money on utilities, thanks to the green home design.
“This looks like we have an administration that understands the need and the promise of American young people, so we are with them 100 percent,” Stoneman said. “And if that changes for some reason, then we have to start over in a new way, but we won’t give up.”
Contact: YouthBuild USA (617) 623-9900.