May 9, 2003 – Qualifying for a "Rite of Passage" by completing a three-week mental toughness component, 14 young men and women on St. Thomas will now go on to a 45-week YouthBuild training program designed to offer training that can lead to real employment opportunities for high school dropouts and unskilled and unemployed youth.
The mental toughness component consisted of activities designed to teach stamina, self-determination, team building, leadership development, work place ethics and life skills such as personal finance management, Jamila Connor, assistant counselor for the program, said.
Activities included role playing and oral interpretations, Connor said. One exercise gave the students three days to obtain such things as a driver's license, voter registration card, Social Security card, passport or birth certificate.
Completing the first three-week hurdle entitles participants to go on to the training portion of the program, which focuses primarily on construction skills. However, the training has practical applications that can be beneficial in a variety of settings.
"Whether they want to continue in construction or go out into other fields, they develop good work habits," Connor said Friday at the "Rite of Passage" ceremony for the 14 held at the Ruth Dazle Community Center in the Oswald Harris Court housing community.
YouthBuild, which began in Harlem in 1988, is open to young adults ages 16 to 24. It is the philosophy of the program to give these young people the skills they need to rebuild their communities. A sentence on the YouthBuild Web site sums it up: "The desire to do meaningful work is universal."
The practical aspects of learning a skill were brought home to the graduates by businessman Lee W. Eisenhauer, owner of Terra Chem.
Eisenhauer openly discussed his upbringing in a dysfunctional family, which led to his dropping out of high school and later joining the Navy. That was "the decision in my life that made it what it is today," he told the group, because in the Navy he learned skills that he could take out into the working world.
Several other speakers echoed Eisenhauer in telling the group that "everyone here wants to see you succeed."
YouthBuild participant Desmond Hodge said the mental toughness component wasn't complicated, but it required attention. "We laughed together, and when it was needed, we were serious together," he said.
The territory through the V.I. Housing Authority has received $944,721 in YouthBuild grants, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — $698,453 for 2002 and $246,268 for 2001. The grants provide for training 30 participants in the St. Thomas-St. John district and 30 on St. Croix over the two-year period.
Irma F. Hodge, Housing Authority director of resident services, said she is in the process of writing a 2003 grant proposal, which is due in June.
Hodge credited Ray Fonseca, VIHA executive director, with saving the program. She said when Fonseca took over at the Housing Authority, the agency was on the brink of having to give back unused YouthBuild grant money. She said Fonseca immediately saw the value of the YouthBuild program and made it a priority to retain the grant money and use it.
Three weeks into the program, it's too soon to try to measure its success. "Successful" would be seeing all of the YouthBuild participants graduate.
A banner hanging on the wall behind the speaker's lectern read, "Congratulations, graduate."
And it was clear, that's what most of the four dozen people attending Friday's ceremony were hoping will happen.
A similar ceremony took place on St. Croix earlier in the week.
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