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



YB Student Organizes Awards Ceremony at Project HOME

While volunteering at Project HOME’s 1515 Fairmount residence, YouthBuild student Dominique had an idea:  What if the organization gave out awards recognizing the residents for their growth and resiliency?

Project HOME empowers people to break the cycle of homelessness through housing and services, and the 1515 Fairmount residence is home to men and women in recovery after struggling with mental illness.

As someone who had experienced setbacks in her own life, Dominique recognized her own struggle in the struggles of the residents.  She wanted to support them, and she knew that their continual efforts to overcome personal challenges deserved recognition.

Dominique’s idea was inspired by the R.E.P. days that we have at the end of each session at YouthBuild.  R.E.P. days include presentations of what students have learned, and awards for students recognizing their high attendance and embodiment of YouthBuild’s core values (Respect, Excellence, and Perseverance).  Dominique remembered how encouraged and inspired she was when she received her first R.E.P. day award.  So she suggested the idea of an awards ceremony to the Volunteer Coordinator at Project HOME.

After two weeks of preparation, YouthBuild Philly and Project HOME staff joined Dominique and the 1515 Fairmount residents on July 19 for a moving and inspiring awards ceremony.  Project HOME staff created the awards for each resident, recognizing them for their growth and resiliency, as well as their learning accomplishments and service contributions.

Dominique gave a short speech before giving out the awards:

_MG_3012 I just want to say that it’s a privilege and an honor to be before amazing individuals such as you guys.  You have all
motivated me because of the trials and tribulations you have overcome.  In my school, this is known as perseverance.  Perseverance is a continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failures, or opposition.  I am here today for this reason.

I feel that if anyone should get a chance of being celebrated it should be strong and courageous people like you.  I hope this is a moment that you all cherish.  Today is a huge day for me because I get to give awards to well deserving people.

I am so grateful that I get to see what not giving up looks like.  Each of you have an amazing story to tell and a gift that can impact the world.  I just want to say, don’t give up.  I truly believe that I am standing in front of people who got knocked down, but got up by any means and made a complete transformation.  That to me shows true dignity.  Today we’re here to celebrate you as individuals, but I am a firm believer in friendships and you have all gone through this process and succeeded together so don’t forget to keep these friendships and let them blossom.

I want to thank Project HOME for allowing us in their space and being so generous and really caring about the lives they come in contact with.  Also, I want to thank YouthBuild for the encouragement and resources to pursue the thing I am passionate about.

We applaud the residents for the huge changes that they have made and are making in their lives, and thank Project HOME for everything that they do – including their support of Dominique’s idea!  Dominique plans to pursue a career in social work, and we believe she has an exciting and successful career of helping others to look forward to.

Volunteer: Join our Transformation Interview Panels

YouthBuild Philadelphia is looking for volunteers to sit on our Transformation Interview Panels to help assess students’ YouthBuild journeys.

Prior to graduating, students are asked to reflect on their overall YouthBuild experience through a formal interview session.. Volunteers will participate in an interview panel alongside YouthBuild staff in order to evaluate student presentations and public speaking skills.

Volunteers are asked to sign up for one or more of the following half day shifts:

Wednesday, June 9 – 8:00am-12:30pm or 12:30-3:30pm
Thursday, June 10 – 8:00am-12:30pm or 12:30-3:30pm

To join a panel, fill out a brief Volunteer application online or contact Lauren Fitzgerald by email or at 215-627-8671 ext. 51.

Interested in volunteering but can’t make it to Transformation Interviews?  Contact Lauren or read more about volunteer opportunities here.

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.