Samantha Healey left high school prematurely, disheartened and unmotivated to work toward a successful future. When her cousin pushed her to apply to YouthBuild North Central, she protested, but reluctantly agreed. She was even more disappointed when she found out that she was accepted and would attend, starting May of 2011. By the end of the first week, she had found a second family.
YouthBuild is a program for 16- to- 24-year-old at-risk youth to, over the course of 10 months, study for and earn their General Education Degree, learn a variety of trades and develop skills that will help them get and retain jobs.
"Samantha is a pretty special young lady," Loren Fortney, YouthBuild North Central's principal says. After six weeks of preparation, Healey received her GED. She now spends her time helping other students prepare and taking the necessary steps for applying to colleges.
What before were goals of getting by with a minimum wage job, have reshaped into plans of attending college to become a high school English teacher. She has currently applied to Davis & Elkins College and Fairmont State University. Healey says that after experiencing the way in which YouthBuild teachers and employees work, she hopes to bring those principles to the public school system.
"Now I know that I can actually decide what I want to do rather than just kind of dealing with it," she says.
YouthBuild incorporates a number of pursuits. Participants can be found intently studying with GED practice books in the classroom, often tutored by Fortney who walks them through their more difficult subjects. They can be found in the shop working on various projects such as molding for houses, equipment sent to the Haiti relief effort or birdhouses for community members. They can be seen in the Elkins area on job sites, installing roofs, working with the Mountaineer Food Bank or planting trees.
Photo by Mallory Bracken
YouthBuild participants Nick Fast and Garrett Workman rebuild the Youth Health Services building’s roof in Mill Creek. Community projects are a key element of the YouthBuild program, in addition to class work and the obtainment of various certifications.
The YouthBuild program highly values community work, having benefitted the city of Elkins with various projects around town. These have included the construction and installation of wooden trash bin covers, Darden House restoration, Tygart River waste pick-up and building the 5th Ward Community Garden. Participants are also given the opportunity to follow employers with job shadowing. Courses are made available for them to earn certifications as well. Among those that they can obtain are Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, CPR and First Aid. By working in these fields, participants graduate from YouthBuild with the experience and certifications that will give them a leg-up when trying to find a stable job.
The program is funded primarily by the Department of Labor and partly by the state of West Virginia, the West Virginia Development Office and Randolph County Board of Education. The Department of Labor, however, has cut funding to the national YouthBuild program. From 273 YouthBuilds nationwide, only 76 received funding and YouthBuild North Central was not one of them. According to Fortney, the program requires an estimated $500,000 to run for the year. That money goes toward building costs, textbooks, school supplies, counseling services and participant and employee salaries. Since learning of the funding cut, YouthBuild North Central has acquired a $10,000 grant from the Randolph County Commission. The other sources of funding will keep them going for one more year at a limited capacity, he says, but if they do not receive enough additional funding, they will be forced to close.
"YouthBuild enables students who have dropped out of school to receive an education and job training," Fortney says. The American Federation of Teachers has endorsed truancy programs in association with circuit court judges in an effort to lower the state's dropout rate. Although this effort may displace attention from the YouthBuild program, Gene Ochsendorf, the YouthBuild director, and Fortney agree that if they have found a way to lower the dropout rate, it will help the students "and that's what we're all about," says Ochsendorf.
Fortney credits YouthBuild's success to the smaller classroom size.
"They can get a lot more one on one attention . . . The teachers and the staff here get to know the students intimately," he says. "By virtue of that, we're able to help them attain the skills and things that they would like to have to move on in life."
Both Healey and Fortney consider YouthBuild to be a sort of family.
"(It's) a place that these students can find a surrogate family, people who care for them and people that they can care for," Fortney says.
"It doesn't matter how bad the day was before. You know that you have all of these people here that care about you more than anything," Healey says. "No matter what just happened, you have somebody here to talk to, you have somebody here that's going to help make things better."
Fortney fears for the effect that the loss of the YouthBuild program will have on the community. He imagines that there will be more legal problems with youth who could otherwise be in the program. Many students come to YouthBuild from difficult situations. Fortney worries that without the YouthBuild support system, they will not be able to move beyond these problems and prepare for successful futures.