YouthBuild finds new funding, relaunches with new students eager for second chance

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POSTED: Friday, February 14, 2014 - 5:00am

UPDATED: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 10:02pm

A program that gives second chances to high school dropouts got a second chance of its own.

YouthBuild had to shut down last summer because it lost all its funding. But now it is open once again, giving students a push toward a better life.

"YouthBuild is a great thing because they don't look at you as a criminal, they don't look at you for your past," Judniqua Evans said. "They look at you for the person that you are, and they see the potential in you. And they help you, they bring the good out of you. They don't let you put yourself down, they're always there to lift you up."

But it was YouthBuild that needed the left up in 2013. Because of a clerical error, the Baton Rouge chapter of the national non-profit lost its main source of funding from the federal government. Executive Director John Stewart sought out grants, communicated with Washington, and raised enough money to re-launch the program.

"I was coming to the office about every day, seeing, updating, 'is the program gonna get back in,'" recalled Naomi Schaffer, who graduated the program in 2012. "Well, I heard it was going to be back in, so I was like, 'let me help y'all out.'"

Schaffer is now YouthBuild's photographer. She knows first-hand what the current groups of students are finding out.

"I was bad. I dropped out of high school, like, 2011 in 10th grade. Then I just came to YouthBuild. I wanted to be changed, I wanted to make a change in life, I wanted to be a better person."

While Schaffer was concerned, many of the current students did not know about the program's problems.

"I was just hearing that it was a great program, so I was just going right in it," Evans recalled.

Evans is one of 18 students enrolled this year. More than 200 applied, and nearly 30 were accepted. But within the first four days, ten of them left. Most of the students who remain have the same motivation.

"I wanted to better myself and try to get my life together," Donangelo Stewart, no relation to John Stewart, said.

All of the students dropped out of high school, but for most, that decision was not due to a lack of interest in their schooling.

"I had to drop out of school early and become a mom," Crystal Bell stated, "but now that I see that my daughter's growing up, she's going to be a teenager before you know it. I have to set a better example for her."

"(I dropped out) because I had a daughter really early; I had a daughter when I was 16 years old," Evans explained. "And me, I was doing really bad things when I was younger: running the streets, getting caught up in drama instead of going to school. So I want to better my life so she can have a better life.

"I don't want her to grow up thinking that it's okay to not finish school. Because you can't make it anywhere without an education."

YouthBuild begins with an orientation period it calls Mental Toughness Week. Included are several guest speakers who try to inspire and motivate the students. On Thursday, they heard from State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome (D-Baton Rouge) and Wayne Tyson, a YouthBuild board member and a workforce development manager at Turner Industries.

"I've learned a lot," Evans said. "I've learned that, no matter what anyone says, you can do it. And no one can help you unless you're willing to help yourself."

"They taught us to never give up on yourself, and always set higher goals for yourself and dream big," Bell added.

Aside from funding, John Stewart had to find new staff members. Most of YouthBuild's staff left while the program was shut down to find other jobs. Students say he did well.

"I think they're good people," Donangelo Stewart said. "They try to help us in better ways than we try to help ourselves."

"I see that the staff is really here to help you," Evans agreed. "They're not here to hurt you, they're pushing you for a good reason, because they see the potential in you."

Bell, who left high school nearly ten years ago, said returning to class was not difficult, though she expects the work may be a challenge.

"Yeah, it's kinda hard, but you've just gotta keep your mind focused on what you set your goals on," she stated. "And once you do that, then God gonna do the rest. Get up every morning and pray that you day go by, and just do it."

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