Gina Vongkaeo’s life today as a painter by trade and a leader in her local union is far different from where she was headed a dozen years ago.
Growing up in poverty and on the streets in California, she’d been out of prison for a year when a friend introduced her to a program that would turn her life around—YouthBuild, an education and workforce development nonprofit that introduces young adults to careers in construction and other high-demand industries.
It took Vongkaeo about a month of watching and listening to the program’s leaders and teachers of YouthBuild San Joaquin to truly warm up to it. What helped was a common history. Like her, many of the staff members had lived in poverty and on the streets, and they were ready and willing to support her.
“My construction teachers, I’m really appreciative of them until today,” she said. “They taught me to have tough skin … they were teaching me discipline, mentally and physically.”
It’s the kind of story that’s played out over and over thanks to YouthBuild, which spans 280 programs across 47 US states and territories and 14 other countries. To date, some 200,000 teens and young adults have participated worldwide. And as part of their pre-apprenticeship program, it has helped build more than 36,000 units of affordable housing and other community spaces. The program, funded in part by the US Department of Labor, works primarily in economically disadvantaged communities.
“Without YouthBuild, if I didn’t go there, I probably would be incarcerated and in the streets or probably not even talking to you guys now; I probably would have been dead,” Vongkaeo said. “And that’s real, you know?”
YouthBuild got its start in 1978 in East Harlem, New York, at a time of high unemployment and growing numbers of disconnected young people, said John Valverde, YouthBuild USA’s president and CEO. In its earliest days, Dorothy Stoneman, YouthBuild’s eventual founder, asked young people hanging out on the corner what they would do to transform the community if they had adult support. Their answer: Take back abandoned buildings, rehab them and build affordable housing.
So that’s what they did.
From the beginning, YouthBuild’s leaders have been committed to empowering young people and prioritizing their ideas, and that’s been a key part of its success. “It’s about co-creating with young people where they have agency and say in their learning and lives,” Valverde said.
Today, YouthBuild is designed for young people, ages 16 to 24, who are not in school or working. Many failed in traditional classroom settings and need far more than a diploma to build better lives, Valverde said.
That’s why 50% of YouthBuild’s instructional time takes place outside the classroom, so students can engage in hands-on learning. Students work on everything from building new LEED-certified homes to rehabbing apartment buildings, community housing and senior centers.
YouthBuild also connects them with wraparound services, including mentoring, financial literacy, help earning a high school diploma or GED and substance misuse assistance. “We are working with young people with a lot of barriers to their success,” Valverde said. “So, without the comprehensive model and approach, we don’t believe that we can remove those barriers.”
Coupled with those supports is the ability to see the fruits of their training and labor in their own communities. All of that is powerful on their road to building better lives, Valverde said. “They see their power and potential to contribute after being, for generations, the recipients of public assistance and other service programs their families have experienced. Now they are the providers of service to their community.”
As a participant, Vongkaeo helped build space for YouthBuild programs and new Habitat for Humanity homes. Those projects gave her purpose, she said. “It’s all about giving back at the end of the day.”
For Vongkaeo, YouthBuild provided opportunities she never could have imagined. A decade after graduating, she remains very close with her YouthBuild mentor, who helped her get her criminal record expunged and invited her to sit in and observe her during board meetings. Vongkaeo also has attended and spoken at YouthBuild USA’s AmeriCorps Conference of Young Leaders in Washington, D.C.
All those experiences launched her on her career path. YouthBuild’s training program set her up with the skills required to be successful in full apprenticeship programs. Attending board meetings and conferences gave her the communication and leadership skills required to be a leader in her union. She hopes to one day become a union organizer.
“The opportunity just kept me on the right path,” Vongkaeo said. “If I was going through things, the staff members made it comfortable for me to go to them and open up. So that [encouraged me to] … not doing nothing stupid today because they’re here for me.”
To an industry that’s suffering from a labor shortage, Vongkaeo has this message: Give young people like her a shot. “A lot of students and graduates who come from the program, we actually work hard. We have ambition and vision, and we’re motivated. We’re willing to learn new things,” she said. “Take a risk on us. Take a risk on the youth.”