"For so many young people, the first 18 years of their lives haven't worked very well," says Kenneth Smith, executive director of YouthBuild Boston. "They want to embrace an opportunity to change."
At the Boston program, youths learn construction trades, landscaping, or facilities management. They weatherize homes for the elderly in their neighborhoods. Last year, 14 graduates made it into the carpenters union.
Perhaps one secret to the program's success lies in its origin: The idea came from youths themselves.
Back in 1978, Dorothy Stoneman was working with low-income teens in East Harlem in New York and asked them what they would do for their community if they had adult support. The kids said they'd take back abandoned houses from drug dealers, restore them, and give them to homeless families. They began to do just that.
Today, 226 organizations across the US are using the YouthBuild model, and the federal government has provided some grants since 1993. With the stimulus funds, federal money for the program will total $120 million for this year.
"The Obama administration understands that it integrates education, employment, housing, crime prevention, and leadership development," says Ms. Stoneman, the longtime youth champion who heads the national YouthBuild USA office that trains affiliates.
Youths spend 50 percent of their time completing a GED or high school diploma and 50 percent developing workplace and life skills through community service projects.
When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began focusing on education, it recognized YouthBuild's track record.