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Dropouts Work, Study To Build New Futures

June 9, 2006
By ANNIE TASKER, Courant Staff Writer

Gerardo Figueroa, 17, is lucky this day.

It's the kind of weather that blows umbrellas inside out, but he and three other YouthBuild students are working inside at 171 Roger St. in Hartford, stuffing insulation between bare wooden beams in the basement.

It's also a better place to be than what Figueroa said was his most likely alternative:

"The streets," he said. "There's nowhere else to be."

YouthBuild is a 10-month work-study program for high school dropouts 16 to 24 years old. The students spend two weeks at a time studying to take their GED, then two weeks working construction. They get paid about $25 a day when they're working.

The program, funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in addition to some federal and city grants, is run by Co-opportunity Inc., an organization that provides resources to low-income families. There are 21 students in the program's current cycle.

Working alongside experienced construction workers, the students learn skills designed to help them get jobs. The houses they build in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity go to low-income families.

"This shows people that, by giving young people a chance, they can actually do something," said Ellen Boynton, YouthBuild Hartford director.

Students learn every aspect of building a house. The two-story structure they are working on at Roger and Yale streets is a three bedroom, 1½-bath colonial.

"This is the perfect learning situation," construction manager Mark Lobo said. "They learned how to do framing, siding, roofing, how to install windows and doors."

A partnership with Hartford's Carpentry Local 43 allows YouthBuild graduates to join the union as second-year apprentices once they finish their 10 months in the program. But, like most graduates, they're not guaranteed a job.

"Part of what we're training them for is the real world," said Lobo. "People don't just hand you things. But there's no reason they shouldn't be able to get construction jobs."

At 10 a.m., break time, Figueroa goes outside and sits on the porch for some fresh air.

He has seven months left with the program. Once he finishes at YouthBuild, he hopes to join a union or work as an independent contractor.

"I learned how to do porches, the right measurements, putting in windows," he said. Figueroa has a friend who lives across the street from the work site, and likes to point out his work to him. High school wasn't a good fit for Figueroa, but YouthBuild, he said, is a different story. It gives him something to be proud of.

"I needed my GED, and I needed to work," he said. "It had both things I need."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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