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Teens Restore Houses, Rebuild Lives

Two ex-convicts give at-risk youth solid job skills as well as a stake in their community

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The abandoned house on Martin Luther King Drive used to be part of the daily scenery of Byron Cabiness's life, just as were the drug dealers and empty storefronts lining this seedy block in Jersey City.

But this pocket of poverty, tucked in a city of 230,000 people just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, is slowly turning around.

For the past few months, Mr. Cabiness and 12 other young men have been gutting walls, installing floors, and painting. And Cabiness has developed, for the first time, a stake in his neighborhood and a desire to learn.

"I've become a pro at this," he says. "I'm a general contractor."

For Cabiness, a high school dropout who until recently was on probation for a minor offense, the change was propelled by two ex-convicts who are working to keep troubled youths on the right side of the law. Their tool: the Friends of the Lifers Youth Corps.

Harvey George and Richard Hochman created the program four years ago after serving sentences for helping a friend they knew had committed a murder. Their nonprofit organization buys abandoned or foreclosed homes, gets local contractors to do the work under the condition that they hire at least two unemployed youths, and puts the units back on the market in areas often starved for affordable housing.

Youths must attend a state-funded, 16-week, hands-on training course where they learn basic construction skills and are encouraged to study for their high school equivalency diploma, or GED.

With its combination of house restoration, job creation for nonskilled youths - some on probation or parole - and the support of local businesses, Friends of the Lifers Youth Corps aims to respond to the decaying core of an urban community.

An avenue out

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