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In Spanish Harlem, youths restore a building - and self-esteem

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Urban rehab is not a new phenomenon in New York City neighborhoods. But how many building renovation programs can trace their roots to a group of teen-agers sheltering stray dogs in abandoned buildings? These teens hooked up with a fledgling community group that was able to help them channel their energy.

The result? Today the Youth Action Restoration Crew (YARC) is putting the finishing touches on a rehabilitation job that will yield two storefronts and four apartments in struggling Spanish Harlem. And YARC has funding from the state to begin its next restoration project. The group aims to continue: Members have their eyes on a whole string of buildings on one block.

But more important, the young people involved say, is the increased self-confidence and sense of accomplishment that has been gained in completing their building. Along the way, the original group of teens - and others who joined in - learned to build a house, speak at City Hall, and help run a youth program.

For some, East Harlem conjures up visions of crime, drugs, poverty, and poor education. Youths here receive the brunt of such stereotyping, and often get caught up in it, people in the community say. But a meeting with the youths involved in YARC and the sponsoring Youth Action Program (YAP) brings more of an image of future community leaders than a generation lost. They sit in a room with a brightly painted sign that reads, '' 'Ain't no stopping us now,' 'cause 'we are family.' ''

There's Irene Rivera, who holds down a job while she is working toward degrees in psychology and political analysis. She plans to go to law school in the future.

Max Hernandez, who helps organize talks on current events for young people in the area, is taking a look at which college he would like to attend.

Sonia Texidor has spoken out in front of the New York City Council on behalf of a program she supports.

''This group is very important,'' says State Sen. Olga A. Mendez, whose district includes East Harlem. She says she'll never forget the first meeting she had with these teens.

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