Monday, September 28, 2009

"Drugs were all around us": Riverview Resident Finds Sanctuary in YouthBuild Program

"You couldn't go one block without running into somebody wantin' to sell you some stuff."

19-year-old Anthony Horton, formerly of Riverview, remembers those days in the neighborhood, when there were more drug dealers on the street than there were cops. And that wasn't all. He remembers vividly the 1994 shooting that claimed the life of four-year-old Jalissa Ferguson, and the stray bullets that struck windows in the Eastman Chemical Building across Wheatley Street. "Two dudes with guns," he recalls, "just shooting at each other." That's all he remembered, because whenever guns came out, it was "R.D.F.C." That stands for Run, and Duck For Cover.

"When I was four years old, we lived in the old Emmitt Collins grocery store building," he remembers, "and when I played out back, I used to get whuppins' all the time because there were used needles back there, and I used to run barefoot. Pretty much, most of our life, I've been close to the bad element in the neighborhood."

And then, he discovered the Youth Build program.

"My brother Michael went through the program, and he told me about it," says Anthony. "It sounded like a good program, so I went down to the Career Center and there weren't any good jobs there. And that's when I saw the Youth Build package my brother had told me about, and I thought well I'm just going to go when the program opens back up. Back in February, I joined up and came to orientation." "I liked the people most of all," he says. "Everybody here is my age, they've all been down the walk I have, if not worser. That's what I like about it, I can relate to everybody here. I can honestly say, there isn't a staff member that can say 'we haven't ever worked with someone like you before. These people know where you're coming from, they know where you've been. They know your abilities and your potential. There's an understanding between us, they understand us. I've never worked with anybody who basically understood me."

"Usually with a government-funded program, there are lots of rules and things that go along with it and they try to change you a lot. With this program, it's not 'them trying to change you' as much as 'you trying to change yourself.' They just give you the opportunity and the things you need to get there. That's what so good about it."

Two of Youth Build's Riverview homes are finished, and right now, Anthony and his classmates are working on and finishing up two more, one at 201 Dunbar at Lincoln Street (Martin Luther King Drive), and the other at 224 Dunbar (the old Dewey Long property).

"17 of the 18 people in the current program came into it without GED's," says Youth Build Director Joe Wallin. "Now, most of them have that diploma, as the other half of the Youth Build program requires. We start 'em off with a mental toughness period, you know: 'do you have what it takes to master this program?' Once they make it through that three-week mental toughness period, we've got reasonable expectations on how they'll do in the program. That's what it's for, it kinda washes out the ones that are not quite as motivated as they need to be, not quite ready for a program like Youth Build."

"Some of the changes that are the most gratifying to me," he says, "are, they'll start the program, coming into it with a history and a background from the public school system of not fitting in, behavorial problems, an attitude. Many of them have been reinforced with that, and that's the first thing we have to break them out of the habit of. The structure of the Youth Build program is positive feedback on everything they do, from GED studying, to learning the craft of homebuilding. Youth Build's national motto is 'Building Communities, Transforming Lives.' I cannot transform anyone's life, but only if they want to do it."

"Many of the students, mostly male, but some female students, have learned so much in the program, that they have continued the skills they learn, into fulltime, paying jobs. But we want them to keep learning and keep progressing." "I often worry about their lives whenever they leave for the day and go back home," Mr. Wallin wonders. "We've spent all day long giving them positive reinforcement, and then at the end of the day, they go back to the bad element, the bad influences in their lives that always tell them 'oh that program's no good, you're just wasting your time. We fight against that every day. Luckily with the pre-screening, we've been able to spot the students that need more encouraging than others, and right now, our track record is pretty good."

Going to classes to learn carpentry and home building and also get his GED, was a reunion of sorts for Anthony; the classes are held in the old Collins store on Lincoln Street in Riverview. They were converted to apartments years ago for families like Anthony's.

So where does Anthony go from here, once his Youth Build experience is complete?

"I want to be a football coach," he says. "I definitely want to pursue a secondary education, because I feel that I have many things to teach young people. This (Youth Build) program has given me a lot of positive reinforcement, especially when I'm out in the community. There are not that many good programs out there for people my age, that actually makes them feel good about themselves." "I would definitely recommend this program for anybody with no direction in their lives," he says. "As far as getting an education, learning a trade and getting financially independent, everything you need in this world, the Youth Build program has it.

"Because you're sure not going anywhere in this world selling drugs and doing all that crazy stuff all the can't live like that." Speaking of that, Anthony is also looking forward to the transformation of Riverview. "I think it's great for the young people coming along," he says. "We're building good, sturdy homes in the Youth Build program, those home where the (Riverview)apartments used to be are going to be nice, and from what I have heard about the V.O. Dobbins Center, the kids will get new equipment, new facilities, more after-school activities, things of that nature." "It's all good.. this is going to be the place to be."

"Finally," he added.