Back in the 1990s, Dorothy Stoneman had big dreams. Not only did she want to help high-school dropouts and unemployed young people, but she also wanted to reach out to poor people in need of housing. So what did she do? She started YouthBuild U.S.A. in 1998, a non-profit that works to solve all of these problems simultaneously.
Today, YouthBuild U.S.A. has grown far beyond its humble beginnings: Now, it has 264 programs in 46 states and 120,000 young people have signed on with the non-profit to build 22,000 units of affordable housing since 1994.
YouthBuild works like this: Its programs across the country recruit unemployed young people ages 16 to 24 (many of whom don’t have high school diplomas). As they learn to build houses and apartment buildings for the homeless and low-income families, participants must also attend an alternative school to earn their diplomas or a G.E.D. They alternate one week working construction with one week in the classroom until they achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the young people learn leadership skills and can obtain counseling and mentoring. When they complete the program, they’re matched with job opportunities.
In an article for Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship Stoneman wrote about Xavier Jennings, a program participant who’d turned his life around and shared his story at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012. As a teenager, Jennings was living in Denver with his grandmother, who lost her food stamps because she was too ill to travel to the office to renew them. To make ends meet, he started dealing drugs. Then at age 18 he heard about Mile High Youth Corps’ YouthBuild program, and for the first time experienced the people in his community treating him with respect rather than as a threat.
“I used to be a hoodlum,” Stoneman writes that many participants say, “Now I am a hero.” She continues, “We need to invest in the education, well-being, inspiration, and character development of every young person born, including those who were born into poverty through no fault of their own. They will grow up to be responsible, productive, caring citizens if society recognizes their value and invests in opportunities for them to realize their full potential.”