In May 2009, after Jammie Sauerbeck graduated from Columbia Builds Youth, a Job Point program offering carpentry and construction training for low-income people ages 16 to 24, she went to work doing heavy highway construction. Although she made an excellent wage and was grateful to have found work so quickly, the 10- to 12-hour, labor-intensive shifts started to wear on her.
“It was emotional for me,” Sauerbeck said. “I’m a woman and a single mom, and I was worried about how I was going to juggle everything.”
But Sauerbeck didn’t wait for stress to overwhelm her. Instead, she went back to the CBY office for help.
The team of teachers and mentors that had watched Sauerbeck successfully complete both the carpentry and the heavy highway construction program provided a crucial support network even after graduation. Program Director Gary Taylor sees such ongoing support as a hallmark of CBY and a significant contributor to the students’ success once they move on to jobs or school.
“Once in CBY, always in CBY,” Taylor said. “Often, when a crisis happens in their lives, students come here. I had one student who came and sat outside the building after a bad fight with his parents. He didn’t come in — just said that he wanted to be nearby.”
Started in 2003, CBY is the local branch of the national YouthBuild program and is sustained largely through federal grants. Students complete a challenging three-week “mental toughness” orientation. If they are among the eight to nine students selected by the staff based on their performance and attitude during orientation, they start the pre-apprentice program. There, they spend 60 percent of their time in a classroom working toward a GED and 40 percent of their time on a worksite, where they can earn up to $3.33 per day.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but we are trying to emphasize that this is just the start of things, that success won’t happen overnight,” Taylor said. “We try to teach patience. Our whole goal is transformation.”
Along with Job Point, various community organizations aid in the transformation process. Students receive counseling from Ellis & Associates psychologists and leadership training from Dr. Rod Casey of Woodcrest Chapel. They also take life-skills courses from Lorenzo Lawson of Youth Empowerment Zone and financial literacy classes through the FDIC’s MoneySmart program. Additionally, students participate in service projects to encourage them to see themselves as connected to a broader community.
After the pre-apprentice stage, students go on to become apprentices, then journeymen working toward professional certification. While training, they build houses for Columbia’s low-income families. Throughout the various stages, they take part in intensive physical training to prepare them for the work that awaits them on job sites such as Sauerbeck’s. Finally, they graduate and find a job or pursue higher education.
For 24-year old Shannon Hickem, the path to success at CBY was not so clearly defined. He is currently working his way through the program for the second time after dropping out due to difficulties at home.
“Completing CBY was the least of my worries back then,” Hickem said. “I was going through housing troubles.”
When he was laid off from a seasonal telemarketing job, Hickem decided to return to CBY. Like all returning participants, he had to re-earn his place, starting with orientation.
“My family doesn’t understand how I’m working for pennies now,” Hickem said, acknowledging the difficulties of a program whose chief aim is to help participants build a better future. “It’s good for the long-term but hard in the short-term. But it’s better than working here and there. I’m looking for more of a career type thing.”
Taylor has seen a few students drop out and then return to the fold.
“I had one student who was here for seven months, dropped out, then came back and had to start all over again,” Taylor said. “I used to feel sorry for him, but then I realized that it’s all part of the program. We don’t use force, but we urge good decision-making. We ask them to make decisions every day, and it might sound strange, but I hope they fail here. What better teachable time is there? Here, it won’t cost them 10 years of their life. We strive to create that safe environment.”
This time, Hickem said he has found his place in CBY and achieved a better understanding of the program’s mission.
“CBY influences a lot that I do,” Hickem said. “I’m drug-free; I don’t drink that much. It changes habits. When I started, I had no goals or motivation. Now, I’ve learned how to set and achieve a goal. I want to earn my GED and go back to school.”
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