POSTED: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 10:04pm
UPDATED: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 3:47pm
Baton Rouge, LA (NBC33) — A local program worked with students who didn't finish high school, and helped dozens of them get GEDs and start promising lives.
Until this year, that is when it was forced to shut down because of a clerical error.
YouthBuild  is a national program with local chapters around the country. Its goal is to help people ages 16-24 who have either dropped out or been expelled from high school.
The typical participant in the program is "low-income, at-risk, no GED, no life skills," said John Stewart, executive director of YouthBuild Capital City . "Our purpose is to, in a 10-month period of time, cover that area and see how many of these folks we can move from no GED or high school diploma to a GED."
One in three students in the East Baton Rouge Public School System drops out of high school. For many, it is a result of struggles at home.
"Whenever I was in school, I was in school, but then whenever I was at home, I had to worry about how I'm going to eat, where will I stay, and stuff like that," Derric Wright said, "because me and my brother didn't have a stable living situation."
"I had trouble staying in school," Joshua Robinson mentioned. "Never had bad grades, but never was in school."
Robinson and Wright both graduated from YouthBuild in 2011, the program's second year.
YouthBuild Capital City takes roughly 30 students a year for its full-time course. Half of their time is spent training for the GED, while the other half is spent learning construction skills. With seven staff members for the 30 students, the students believe teachers can afford to be more personally involved than in traditional classrooms.
"You mess up the first time, they stick with you," said LaTonya Wright, who graduated in 2012. "You mess up the second time, they stick with you. They're not going to give up on you."
"It was a good experience for anybody that really didn't have no mom or father to go to," added Ronnie Humbles, who graduated in 2013. "Because, the relationship with the people that's here is like your mom and your father. it was real love and affection. It wasn't nothing fake, they really care about you.
"There's things, I needed help with my electricity bill, they'd help me. I needed a ride anywhere, they'd help me. Anything that could benefit you and make you better of a person, all the teachers and all the instructors here, even the executive (director) of the program, Mr. Stewart, they was there for you."
Most of the students who come to YouthBuild are still ambitious, regardless of their ability to finish high school.
"Throughout my struggle, I just stayed focused on what I want out of life," Humbles recalled. "And that's just to be somebody important."
"I didn't finish high school, and I had my son," said LaTonya Wright, who graduated in 2012. "But I was like, 'I'm not giving up, because I have to provide for my son.'"
And for many, that feeling was intensified the longer they remained in the program.
"Kinda put my mind in a different place," Robinson said, "and just made me want better for myself in wanting to do more things."
"For so many students, it creates a desire, and a need almost, to become contributors, to be able to take care of themselves," Stewart claimed.
For their construction training, the students worked with the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority, other local redevelopment agencies, and groups such as Habitat for Humanity.
After Robinson left YouthBuild, he accepted a job with the Parish Housing Authority.
"When I was still in YouthBuild, I actually got to meet the director," he mentioned.
Most of the students come from poor families, so YouthBuild pays them a stipend ranging from $2-4 an hour.
"It was a lot of struggling. Money-wise, it was hard, financially," Humbles admitted. "And by they was providing a stipend every two weeks, it was really good for my behalf. They teach you responsibility: if you come to work, you get paid."
Just four years since its inception, more than 225 people applied to YouthBuild Capital City this year, even though it cannot accept any of them.
But not all of its students wanted to enroll in YouthBuild. Some of them came to the program by court order, because it gives them skills and discipline, at a fraction of the cost of jail time.
"If they're in the judicial system, they're not contributing to society," Stewart added. "They're not contributing, they're not paying taxes, they're not providing for their children, who are now also an additional burden on the state.
"I think that the city and the parish, and for that matter, the state, all rely on this program."
Most of YouthBuild's money came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But because of a clerical error, it was denied for the two-year cycle that began in August. It has roughly $100,000 in a savings account, which it was not allowed to access for a couple months. Stewart recently received a grant for $45,000, and believes that he can obtain enough funding to relaunch the program in December.
He calculated that he could run the program for less than $300,000 this year. But because the federal government's funding stopped, and the local government has been unwilling to step in, grants have been difficult to come by.
"YouthBuild, it helped me out a lot," Robinson said. "So it's just another group of people who couldn't get helped out."
"I got my own apartment thanks to YouthBuild," Humbles added. "A lot of big, major things in my life just did a dramatic change since I came to YouthBuild. I just thank God and everybody around that helped me out when I was in the program. I just thank you that I had this program to come to."
YouthBuild holds a particularly special place in the hearts of LaTonya and Derric Wright. Derric is the younger sibling, but he entered the program first. His graduation inspired her to give it a try.
"They helped my two twin brothers, they helped me, and my little sister," LaTonya Wright mentioned. "All of us, they helped all of us get our GED. And we all are doing positive things now. We're really making it, and I really appreciate this program."
"We didn't have a stable house to stay in," Derric Wright added. "We didn't have, barely had food to survive each day. We didn't have money in our pockets to even go buy food and stuff.
"But now that we got our GED and going to school paid off, we don't have to worry about money, we don't have to worry about how we're going to get to work, and stuff like that."
Stewart is the only member of the YouthBuild staff still being funded by the program. For the program to remain as successful as it has been, he knows he needs to find more money soon.
"We've got a couple key people that are hanging on, sort of waiting to see what's going to happen," he noted. "But at some point in time, they've got bills to pay."
While Robinson uses the construction and mechanical skills he learned in YouthBuild, its graduates venture into a number of industries. Humbles is studying to get his machinist's certificate; LaTonya Wright is a security officer with plans to apply for a spot in the Baton Rouge Police Department; and Derric Wright is a youth group leader at Healing Place Church.
Two hundred twenty five people applied for 32 spots in YouthBuild in 2012, compared to the roughly 30 people who applied when the program started four years ago. Stewart said even more people applied for this year, but none of them have been able to receive the opportunity that meant so much to Humbles, Robinson, and the Wrights.
"This program helps the kids that feel like they gave up on life," LaTonya Wright said. "They feel like they don't have a chance, and they feel like they can't make it. This program helps them make it."
"It might save a lot of people's lives," Humbles added. "I know it saved mine."
To contact YouthBuild Capital City, call (225) 379-3807.