Humans of YB: Andrea, Class of 2016

AndreaAndrea is a health care student at YouthBuild, pursuing an EMT certification.  “It’s a family thing,” she said of her career goals. “My father and godfather are both firefighters. I’ve always wanted to be a paramedic.”

Andrea left her old school to find work, but soon discovered that she needed a diploma to get the jobs she was looking for.  Her cousin, a YouthBuild graduate, suggested she apply to YouthBuild.

However, going to YouthBuild means more to Andrea than just getting a diploma and a job certification. Since enrolling, Andrea has found motivation, inspiration and support. “(Health Care Coordinator) Ms. Nakesha is my motivation,” she said.  “She’s on our backs like crazy in the health care program. If we are late or don’t show up, she texts us immediately, and she is always reminding us that our hard work will pay off in the future.”

“I haven’t been at YouthBuild very long, but the staff here have helped me with getting my ID, getting transportation, and even clothing,” Andrea says. “It makes me feel wanted.”

“I’ve been going through stuff, but I manage to show up and stay resilient, and I’m proud of that.  The best piece of advice I’ve gotten at YouthBuild is that nothing is handed to you; you’ve got to put in the work. And when I think about my future, it makes me go at it more.”

Students Write: “Dear YouthBuild…”

This year, students in Ms. Willa’s Language Arts class spent the academic year working on ethnography projects that studied a place of their choosing. Ethnography, students learned, is a form of social research that observes and analyzes the everyday patterns and practices of a group.  This particular assignment – which Ms. Willa called “Sense of Place, Sense of Self” – highlighted the idea that group and individual identities are often tied to geography and “place.”

At the start of the school year, students selected a place – for example, a youth shelter, or a particular intersection in their neighborhood – to be the focus of their ethnography.  Over the course of the year, students wrote essays studying the rules and symbols of their chosen “place,” drew informational maps, and interviewed members of the community.   Ethnographies often include reflections from the researcher about their own interpretations and biases, so students also wrote letters to the place that they had chosen.

Some students decided to focus their ethnographies on YouthBuild Philly.  Below, we share two letters written to YouthBuild by student ethnographers Angela and Anthony:

Dear YouthBuild,photo2web

I was afraid to open up to you at first as I’m sure you already know, but you did your best to help me.  If I don’t have anyone I know I will always have you by my side through every step I take.  Each day I walk into you and I feel your warm embrace around me making me grow even fonder of you.  If the world had others like you, you could help paint the future of our millennium and future generations to come.

Sometimes you frustrate me, and sometimes I want to let you go but you always give me a reason to hold on.  Many people don’t know you or take time to listen to your story, I know if they took the chance to see who you are you could change the mindset of others.

You sculpted me, you molded me into the woman I need to become.  I may not be perfect but you never judge me; instead you guide me when I fall off track.  We’ve had our differences but you’ve shown me you only want the best for me and my future.  When life knocks me down you always let me know you’re here with a hand to lift me up.

You help me hide from the world around me; you also help me do more productive activities with my life instead of being in the street.  The world could have taken control of me but instead you took me under your wing.  They only fear I have now is letting you down, but I know in my heart that you would never let me do so.

Just seeing you reward my accomplishments and positivity makes me want to make you more proud.  As you watch me grown and as I succeed on my journey, I know that you are smiling upon me.


Angela Shapiro

P.S. See you at graduation – remember, it’s in August.  See you soon.


Dear YouthBuild,photo1web

When I first met you in mental toughness, I was inspired by your positivity and professionalism.  It pushed me to strive for success and make sacrifices in order to reach my goals.  All the people you introduced me to became my family and you became my home.  Failure became my past and success became my future.  You gave me a second chance and showed me what freedom feels like.  Told me that I am just as good as that man carrying his briefcase, walking into a twenty-story building in a suit and tie wearing shoes covered in animals that you only see in the zoo when they’re alive, if not better than him.

You became my voice when nobody else stood up for me.  You’ve proven to the world that I’m not the criminal they expected me to be.  You told my family that I was in good hands and will be working with other young adults to change the community we live in.  You took me under the wing and became my mentor throughout the journey we are taking to success.  You push me every step of the way to force myself not to take a break, slow down or quit marching with this team we all put together.

Thanks to you, I know there’s a brighter future waiting for my arrival.  There is another generation waiting on me to stand in front of them and share my success story, another class of your students are waiting for me to tell them how real this opportunity is.  Without you I don’t know where I’d be.

Anthony Cunningham



For two students, an early graduation


In Simran Sidhu’s TEDxPhiladelphia talk about YouthBuild Philly’s core strategies, she emphasized the importance of putting individual students and their needs at the center of our program design.  What this means, sometimes, is being willing to abandon or adjust existing program constraints if they don’t help students achieve success.

Last Friday’s community meeting offered a great example of this flexibility and student-centered focus – but it requires a little explanation first:

YouthBuild Philly is housed in the OIC building on North Broad St., which we share with several other non-profits including Philadelphia OIC, Inc., which owns the building.  In early February, Philadelphia OIC contracted Graboyes Commercial Window company to replace the building’s windows.

When several glass workers showed up at our school to replace the windows, YouthBuild’s Director of Vocational Training Marty Molloy saw an opportunity.  He approached the Graboyes team and arranged for one student – Jerome Kinard – to pursue an internship with the firm.  (Here are photos from Jerome’s first day on the job.)

In April, Jerome took time off from his internship to attend the YouthBuild USA Conference of Young Leaders, and Aaron Warren filled in during that week – which led to his being brought on as a full-time intern as well.

Aaron and Jerome have both fulfilled their diploma requirements (attendance, coursework, vocational certifications, service in the community) with YouthBuild already, and Graboyes was eager to hire both of them and help them enter a union apprenticeship.  The only catch was that Aaron and Jerome needed to have their actual high school diplomas; fulfilling the requirements wasn’t enough.  Unfortunately, YouthBuild traditionally only gives out diplomas in August or November at our graduation ceremonies.

When presented with this problem, however, school leadership decided to make an exception.  It didn’t make sense to hold Jerome and Aaron back when they had fulfilled their requirements and had worked hard to earn new opportunities.

So last week we awarded the two students their signed and seal-stamped high school diplomas.  They are now the first graduates in the Class of 2014!


It would have been anticlimactic to just hand these hard-earned diplomas to the students, of course, so the school held a surprise ceremony during last Friday’s community meeting.  Jerome and Aaron wore their caps and gowns, we played Pomp and Circumstance over the speakers, and Simran awarded the students with their diplomas.  (Note: Jerome and Aaron will also walk in the official August graduation ceremony alongside their classmates and in front of their friends and family).


The outpouring of support from Jerome and Aaron’s classmates was the highlight of the ceremony.  Many students still have some requirements to fulfill before August – and some may not graduate until November – but on Friday everyone celebrated this early graduation.  The room was filled to the ceiling with 2014 pride.


We are so proud of Jerome and Aaron’s hard work at YouthBuild and with Graboyes – and of their classmates who continue to pursue excellence and demonstrate perseverance on their way to graduation.  Please join us in cheering on the Class of 2014 as they enter the home stretch!


YouthBuildStudent Honored for National Service in Citywide Ceremony

66820_10151535129269916_330622103_nEarlier this year, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced to his colleagues at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that April 9, 2013 would mark the first-ever Mayors Day of Recognition for National Service in cities across the country. This celebration – led by Mayor Nutter as well as the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) – was envisioned as a way for mayors to highlight the impact of national service being done by citizens, AmeriCorps members, and SeniorCorps members in their community. (Click here to watch Mayor Nutter discuss the Day of Recognition on MSNBC’s Morning Joe – jump to 00:59 for the interview).

YouthBuild Philly provided the location for the Mayor’s celebration in Philadelphia, organized by the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service. The highlight of the ceremony featured the announcement of Mayor’s Awards for Distinguished Service, recognizing AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps members and alumni in Philadelphia for their commitment to serving their community.

We were excited to nominate YouthBuild student and AmeriCorps member Dominique Brown. Community Projects Coordinator (and full-time AmeriCorps member) Zuri Stone wrote Dominique’s nomination letter, noting that

Zuri and Dominique

Dominique’s long term goal is to go to college and become a social worker. Her life experiences and service involvement have transformed her into a caring person, with a passion now to make sure no child goes through what she has gone through and that no struggling individual is left to fend for themselves…

…The thing about Dominique that further distinguishes her from others that are doing service often is her inquisitiveness. There is a curiosity in her mind to not only help others, but to understand the deeper meaning behind the issues themselves. She never accepts her service as a shallow one-time event, rather she inquires on the history of those she works with as well as the root of the issues they are facing. After attending the AIDS Walk with YouthBuild, she later suggested that we support more walks and eventually she help us coordinate our participation in the Alzheimer’s Walk.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dominique is the most deserving candidate for this award. She is taking her life experiences and transforming them into a positive movement to help her community. It has been an honor to know Dominique as a student and I cannot wait to see her growth into a college campus activist and furthermore into a personal activist for each and every one of her clients as a social worker.

Dominique was selected as an outstanding nominee by the award committee, and had the opportunity to meet high-profile champions of national service – U.S. Senator Harris Wofford, CNCS CEO Wendy Spencer (who, in her remarks, called Philadelphia the “City of National Service Love.” We hope the nickname sticks!), Deputy Mayor and Managing Director Richard Negrin, and, of course, Mayor Nutter.

548916_10151535129739916_525785131_nAt the end of the ceremony, Mayor Nutter announced the final award-winners, and Dominique received the Mayor’s Award for Distinguished National Service!

We’d like to congratulate Dominique on her well-deserved award, as well as the other winners and outstanding nominees. We thank Mayor Nutter for his commitment to service and leadership in instituting the Mayors Day of Recognition, and thank the Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service for organizing this event! Service is at the core of YouthBuild’s program and values, and we were honored to help host a ceremony recognizing service and its best exemplars at our school!

Check out our Facebook photo album for more photos from this exciting day!

Guest Post: Never Too Late

by Shacoya, Class of 2013

As of now, I am a 21-year-old mother of a beautiful 3-year-old little girl, Armani.  She means the world to me.  I’m trying to better myself, not only for me, but for her, too!  I dropped out of school in the 10th grade after I became pregnant with my daughter.  For years I thought about going back to school, but I kept using the excuse of being a mother to not go back.  To me, I was being the best mother I knew how to be by not going to school and instead taking care of my daughter.

A couple of my close family members and friends told me about YouthBuild, so I told myself that once I turned 18, I would apply.  I let 18 and 19 go by before I finally realized that I would not go anywhere in life without an education, and I wouldn’t let that opportunity slip by.  So I applied to YouthBuild, and they called me for orientation and an interview.  I was accepted to come back to Mental Toughness.  Excited would be an understatement!  I finally had something to look forward to besides having my daughter.

I made it through Mental Toughness, surprisingly.  I vowed to myself that 2013 would be my year!  I will give my daughter something positive to say about her mommy.  I may have dropped out of school, but I made it a priority to come back.  I have barriers that are trying to stop me, BUT I WILL NOT LET THEM!!

Because come August 2013, I, Shacoya, will be a YouthBuild high school graduate.

YouthBuild student goes to Chicago for National Conference on Volunteering and Service

Class of 2012 student Tahir Ingram (who you may remember from this Q&A back in October)  has received a First Place recognition for the YouthBuild AmeriCorps Award for Outstanding Community Service.  This award identifies students from YouthBuild programs across the country who have excelled in their service as AmeriCorps members during their time as YouthBuild students.  As a first place winner of the award, Tahir was able to attend the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Chicago, Il from June 18 to 20.

“The panel felt that Tahir embodies a commitment to service, shows a willingness to take initiative and go above and beyond what is expected, and, through his actions, has a clear positive impact on his program and his community,” said Jill Graham, the AmeriCorps Portfolio Manager for YouthBuild USA, which serves as an intermediary for AmeriCorps and other funding to YouthBuild programs nationwide.

YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School is an alternative education program for former high school dropouts.  In addition to the school’s academic and vocational training requirements, students must also complete at least 675 hours of volunteer service as AmeriCorps members in order to graduate.  Upon completion of their service hours, students are eligible for an AmeriCorps education award of $2,100 towards their education after YouthBuild.

Tahir and his squad leader, Jose

Tahir, 20, will graduate in August having completed the school’s academic and vocational training requirements, as well as more than 1,000 hours of volunteer service. His service in Philadelphia has included time spent volunteering as a coach for a youth gymnastics program and at local hunger relief organization Philabundance; additionally, Tahir was selected along with other YouthBuild Philadelphia students earlier in the year to be part of a service learning trip to Utuado, Puerto Rico where the group cleared trails for an organic coffee farm.  He enjoyed attending the National Conference on Volunteering and Service this week with other volunteers from around the country and “being around people with a similar drive and aspiration.”

Tahir and classmates at Philabundance

“I like to help people and feel like I’m making a difference,” said Tahir, noting that he’d been volunteering in Philadelphia prior to attending YouthBuild.  His service sites and fellow volunteers “felt like a family” to him.  He plans to attend Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa in the fall, where he will study architecture.  In addition to focusing on his studies, he hopes to be involved at Thaddeus Stevens in student leadership, peer tutoring, and other campus activities.

Q & A with new student Tahir

Tahir, age 19,  is a new student at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School. Over the next 12-15 months, Tahir and 213 other former high school dropouts will work toward their diplomas, vocational certification, college and careers. Tahir shares his personal story with us.

Why did you drop-out of school?

Bullying and all its effects. I was robbed, jumped, beat up and teased often. I didn’t want to go to school. At one point, I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to be around anyone my age. I became reclusive.

So, why did you come to YouthBuild?

I got tired of sitting idly at home and not doing anything. I want to start working and I can’t do that without education and knowledge. My mom told me about YouthBuild, so I came to orientation, and I was excited about the opportunity to learn a trade.

How has the experience been so far?

Unbelievable. The energy here is noteworthy. It’s not something you will get in most places.  I’ve never seen a learning environment where there’s this kind of relationship between teachers and students. A lot of people get individual attention, but there’s not favoritism. If all the schools adopted YouthBuild’s culture, kids would want to go to school and we wouldn’t have so many dropouts. How many schools do you know where staff give high fives in the morning?

Not many. What are you most looking forward to this year?

Graduation. I want to walk across that stage and get my diploma. At one point, I never thought I would have that opportunity. Now I’m planning to go to college. I never even thought about going to college, until the first week at YouthBuild when we visited Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). I never thought I would be able to go to college, pay for college, or get a scholarship. Now, I have the opportunity to get my AmeriCorps education award to pay for school.

What do you plan to do with that AmeriCorps education award after YouthBuild?

My trade at YouthBuild is design and woodworking. I want to continue in that field by attending CCP for architecture, and then transfer to a 4-year school. I want to be as prepared as possible to start my career, and I know I need a higher degree to get the kind of job that I want.

And you created this plan in your first month at YouthBuild?

Yes. I’ve always wanted to be an architect, but I didn’t know the steps to get there. Now I do.

Tahir and his squad leader, Jose
Celebrating the last day of Mental Toughness Training with students and staff

Student Spotlights: Preparing for Transition

Shakila Alexander, a student in YouthBuild’s Healthcare Training program, earned her Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) certification through our partnership with Leahy Caregivers.  In the classroom, Shakila earned a 92% average in her academic courses.  As a Peer Mediator, she helped to support other students and resolve conflicts throughout the year. In addition, she was a member of the YouthBuild Step Team, which performed at school and local events.

Shakila will graduate on August 27 with honors, after completing the Medical Assistant program at Lincoln Technical Institute this summer. She will begin classes at the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology in the fall to work toward an Associate’s Degree in Pre-Nursing.

Carnell Bates was selected to participate in our advanced construction training program, Tomorrow’s Promise, due to his outstanding performance on the vocational training worksite this year.  He was also selected to participate in the after-school ACE Mentor Program to learn from architecture professionals. Carnell became a new father midway through the year, and he has worked tirelessly to remain focused on his school work while balancing life as an actively involved parent.

Carnell will work toward completing his academic graduation requirements this summer, and plans to attend Community College of Philadelphia after graduation. His ultimate goal is to become a construction architect.

Ashanti Stafford, a student in YouthBuild’s IT and Business Administration training program, earned high marks in both vocational training and academic classes throughout the school year.  As a Peer Mediator and member of Youth Congress, Ashanti established herself as a leader in the classroom and student assemblies. She also worked with our Transition Services team to encourage student participation in The Journey, an after-school program designed to guide students through the college admissions process.

Ashanti will take college courses at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) this summer, graduate with high honors in August, and begin taking classes full-time at IUP in the fall to earn her Bachelor’s Degree in Communications.

Q&A with Student Latara Vasquez

Why did you come to YouthBuild?Latara Vasquez, YouthBuild Philadelphia student

I had trouble staying in high school because I had to take care of my young cousins while my aunt was at work.  I was also living in an abusive place, mentally and physically. I missed so many days that I had no choice to stay (in school). I was referred to YouthBuild by my uncle, who told me it was a very good school. The first time I came here, I knew I liked it. They don’t turn down a hand when a person needs help – they look for ways to lend a hand.

How is YouthBuild different and why has that helped you?

There is more structure and discipline here. But it’s a different kind of discipline. People show you they care. They push you and you know you only have one year to make it. The learning is also very different. Everything is hands-on. It’s not just reading textbooks. We learn about things that matter to us, like how the government works in social studies, and how to be healthy in science class. I never understood math before I was in YouthBuild. Mr. Brian goes step-by-step with me, and I get it because of him.  If I didn’t have a teacher like him, I probably would have dropped out again. It’s hard to stay in school when you don’t understand something like math. All the staff value our education like it’s theirs, like they own it.

How do you think you have changed since the beginning of the year?

I’ve become very outspoken. Before I was really shy and never raised my hand in class, even if I had an answer.  Here, they celebrate our intelligence. I used to be afraid of being picked on for knowing the right answer, but students are different here.  We want to get the answers right.    My language has changed too.  I used to speak with a lot of slang, but I’m learning to speak properly. I listen to Mr. Ameen (Dean of Students) in assemblies, and it shows me how to stand up in front of a crowd and speak properly.

What are some of the most important things you’ve learned at YouthBuild?

In construction training, I’ve learned a lot about patience and cooperation because we have to work together on the worksite.  That’s helped me in the classroom and at home, because I’m more patient there now, too. I also learned about problem solving – like when the tools don’t work or when people have disagreements. I’ve learned about how important is to communicate if we want to get a lot done together. Then in science class, we learned about genes and how diseases can be hereditary. It was really interesting, and it also helped me learn about how I’m at risk for diabetes.

What do you hope to do after you graduate in August?

I want to go straight to college, hopefully at Lincoln University. I want to keep studying science, and one day I want to become a veterinarian or pediatrician.

Q & A with new student John Jones

John JonesJohn Jones, age 19, is one of 219 new students – all previously high school dropouts – entering YouthBuild Philadelphia this fall. As part of our ongoing effort to share the amazing transformations made by our students, John offered to answer a few questions at the onset of his yearlong journey.

What motivated you to come to YouthBuild?

I heard about YouthBuild through a friend of mine, but I’ve never really been big on coming back to get my diploma. I was into the streets; I used to hustle and then I got locked up. Things changed nine months ago when I had my son, Cash. I’m not living just for myself anymore—I’m living for us. I applied last year and didn’t make it through the application process, but I’m ready this year.

What is different about YouthBuild?

Since I got in to YouthBuild, there are so many opportunities for growth. I feel like I have another chance and I’m looking at school in a different way. Ya’ll [teachers/staff] don’t treat us like kids; you treat us like grown adults. I can relate to that. I respect people and I appreciate when people respect me. There are so many benefits to being here. I want to further my education and I want a better future. It’s just a really good opportunity; I love it.

What part of Mental Toughness Training was most meaningful to you?

Just coming to Mental Toughness and knowing I could do it was the best part of the two weeks. Knowing I can get up every morning and knowing that YouthBuild is something I can do. I like it. I’m there. Besides that, the 2009 graduation was also really meaningful. The smiles on the graduates faces because YouthBuild gave them a second chance made me see myself up on that stage. YouthBuild plays its part in making me a better person, now I just have to play mine. I know ya’ll got my back, and I’ve got yours. It’s a family.

What do you think your biggest challenge will be this year?

Keeping up with my attendance will probably be my biggest challenge. I know I’m a smart kid and if I put my mind to something I can achieve it. I’m well mannered and I show respect. Being here is what I need to accomplish to move forward, so I know I’ve got to be here to do well.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

After graduation I’m interested in going to college. Before I came to YouthBuild, I had a girlfriend in college. I used to visit her and it seemed like I could really do that. Getting a look at that atmosphere made me think that going to college could be easy for me, so why was I hesitating? At this point I’m my own biggest hurdle. I have to be my own worst critic and finish this year like I know I can.