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.”

Congratulations Class of 2013!


Our school reached a new milestone on August 23, when 127 students in the Class of 2013 received their diplomas at our 21st commencement ceremony.  As of Friday, more than 2,000 motivated young people have graduated from YouthBuild Philadelphia since the program’s founding in 1992.  The YouthBuild Philly movement has come a long way since our first class of sixteen graduates!

Dorothy Stoneman, YouthBuild USA
Dorothy Stoneman, YouthBuild USA

Many friends and supporters of the program joined us to celebrate the joyous occasion.  Dorothy Stoneman, Founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA as well as YouthBuild founding staff member John Bell attended and handed out awards during the ceremony.  Other guests included our board members, representatives from local elected leaders’ offices, and staff from our funding and program partners.

This year’s commencement speaker was Martin Luther King III, who was organizing a march in Washington, D.C. the very next day to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and his father’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.  YouthBuild USA was one of the many organizations involved in the Washington event over the weekend.

Mr. King’s speech tied the graduates’ accomplishments to the work yet to be done in the name of civil rights and improving communities.  “Civil rights is alive,” he said.  “And my dad would be telling us that we have to find a way to create jobs and opportunities.  The mantra in 1963 was Jobs and Freedom.  In 2013 it’s Jobs, Freedom and Justice.”

Martin Luther King III
Martin Luther King III

“Where you are in your lives is the result of the energy and the fact that you each of chosen to take a step to take charge for your future,” Mr. King said.  “While this is an important graduation for each of you – and it’s a huge step – it’s not the ending.  It really is the beginning of what you should do within your lives.”

Class of 2013 valedictorian Derrick Davenport also addressed his fellow graduates, as well as the applicants going through Mental Toughness Training to join the Class of 2014 who were also in the audience.  In a speech titled “Don’t Settle for Less, Just Do Your Best,” Derrick reflected on his transformation at YouthBuild, saying “With the help and guidance from teachers, staff, mentors and family members, I am no longer that kid on the stoop.  I’m the father paving the way for my son’s future.”

“Class of 2013, we’ve shown up and produced high quality work throughout the school year.  On the construction site we have learned the skills to build walls, insert drywall, prime and paint.  On academics, we’ve written about our own inspirational leaders, conducted research projects, written narrative essays, and shown motivation. But the journey can’t stop here.  A diploma isn’t enough.  Don’t be scared to force yourself to do better.  I challenge you to sacrifice the person you were for who you are willing to become.  You have proven that you are able to persevere through obstacles.  There are always going to be challenges throughout life, but you can’t let them stop you.   Always be excellent.  Excellence is a lifestyle; excellence is who you became and who you should continue to be.”

To the Mental Toughness applicants, Derrick said: “When there are moments of doubt telling you can’t do it, or you’re listening to people who say you can’t, the real question is: are you willing to work hard enough?”

Other speakers included Excellence Award winner Kyra Butler and Class of 2007 alumna Analicia Lindsay-Whitehead.

Class Valedictorian Derrick Davenport receives his diploma
Class Valedictorian Derrick Davenport receives his diploma from YouthBuild Philly Board Member Erin Horvat

Every year, YouthBuild presents a Legacy Award and a Meaningful Impact Award to partners and supporters of the program who have helped YouthBuild Philadelphia strengthen our program and pursuit of our mission, and paved the way for increased opportunities for our students.  This year we were proud to give the Legacy Award to Scott Emerick from YouthBuild USA and the Meaningful Impact Award to Dennis McDonough from Finishing Trades Institute.

To reiterate Mr. King’s insight, graduation marks the end of a year at YouthBuild – and the beginning of the rest of our graduate’s lives. All of our students have postsecondary plans ranging from full-time employment to the military, and 82 of Friday’s graduates intend to continue their education through college or trade school.  Many of our graduates will be the first in their families to go to college.

The costs of college are a significant consideration for YouthBuild students, who often must pay for their own tuition and supplies in addition to supporting themselves and their families.  For this reason, YouthBuild Philly runs a summer campaign to raise money for the Scholarship Fund.  Thanks to our generous individual donors and members of the YouthBuild Board of Trustees as well as the Young Friends of YouthBuild (who organized a bowling fundraiser at North Bowl), we received enough contributions to give out twenty scholarships this year.  Students can use these awards for tuition or other costs not covered by financial aid or scholarships, such as supplies.

To see more photos from graduation, check out our album on Facebook.  Use the comments section below to leave a note of congratulations to our graduates.

YBN: We are in the Movement

Poem by Farah Johnson,
Class of 2011
Originally published in YBN, the YouthBuild Philadelphia student newspaper

All of us as the youth
Striving together towards improvement.
We have a never-ending burning desire.
It lives in us, within our souls.
Our diplomas we yearn to acquire.
The labels we were branded with slowly disintegrate,
But the trials and tribulations will be great.
Hold your head high, we are in the movement.

All of us as the youth are tomorrow’s society,
As we learn and follow the YouthBuild way,
it becomes part of our personality.
Displayed with honor not put on and taken off
the way we do our clothes.
Everyday counts no matter how long or short.
The class before u did it and now we carry the torch.
I take pride in saying we took our education
back into our hands.
By way of our journey there will be ups and downs,
when we feel no one understands.

Stay motivated, stay strong, we are in the movement.
Ambition will aid us in reaching our goals.
Working together side by side everyone playing a role.
All at once enticing our young children to stay in school.
To pay on our legacy is the golden rule.
Manifesting a society of nurses and more,
Who bleed respect, perseverance and excellence from their cores.
Refrain from negativity, we are in the movement.
Your voices will matter. We do this together as a team and a family.
No matter the weather.

Mayor Nutter Shout-out to Alumni Zurrell Toney

On Thursday, March 4, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter delivered his annual Budget Address, “Fighting for Philadelphia: A Safer, Smarter and More Sustainable Future” before City Council, and he gave special recognition to our 2009 valedictorian, Zurrell Toney:

Across the city, thousands of Philadelphians are acting in partnership with their government, giving back to communities, volunteering in town watch, mentoring a child, spending time at hospitals, recreation centers and much more.

Each one is living the ideal of Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection … Philadelphia, The City of Service.

There’s Zurrell Toney, a high school dropout who became an AmeriCorps volunteer logging more than 900 hours rebuilding homes for low-income families.

I met him at his graduation from YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School where he was the valedictorian. He’s now in college with dreams of owning a business. Please recognize Zurrell.”  (Full text)

Zurrell is currently earning high marks at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, and recently stepped into a leadership role in his business class for a semester long group project.  Congratulations Zurrell!

A long time supporter of YouthBuild Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter keynoted our 2009 commencement ceremony, and we are proud to call him a member of the YouthBuild family!

Watch the video of the Mayor’s Budget Address at (shout-out at 13:20)

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.