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

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''Most of the kids were 10 to 14, but I was highly impressed. They had prepared a fabulous agenda. The kinds of questions they asked about government were very good.'' Adults often underestimate the depth and vigor of concern that youths have for their community, she adds. But these ''wonderfully, politically sophisticated'' youths help ensure that East Harlem has a future, says Senator Mendez.

Some 250 youths have worked on the renovated building in East Harlem over the past five years, either as a volunteer or a paid trainee. Some, like Rosa Barrilla, may have found a career in the work.

''It went really great,'' she says of her work for YARC. Miss Barrilla did everything from demolition to roofing. Because of her experience, she was able to get a job last summer as a construction crew supervisor at a project at the East Harlem Music School.

Max Hernandez, on the other hand, is considering other career choices. But he is happy that he learned skills such as putting up studs and measuring and cutting materials. Now he is active in organizing Youth Congress meetings at YAP , where area young people discuss such topics as youth and the military, foreign policy, and sex education.

Although YARC and YAP receive adult supervision, it is the young people who set the agenda, hire the adults, and participate in fund-raising. Instead of following the usual example of adult-led programs, there was an early decision to put the program in the hands of the youths, says Dorothy Stoneman, director of YAP.

''We started asking them (the teens in the area) what they would do in the community if adults would back them up,'' she says. ''They had such strong ideas. It was liberating a terrific energy and idealism.'' These youths were interested in forming youth patrols for housing projects, doing the housing rehabilitation, and finding homes for young people who could no longer live with their families.

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