The Housing Authority of Champaign County recently launched YouthBuild, a program for 16-24 year olds that is part alternative education, part job training. It's funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, and is meant to engage marginalized teens and young adults who are in need of another chance at pursuing educational and career goals. While attaining a high school diploma, they will work alongside mentors in the construction field, learning the trade and assisting on projects throughout the area. David Northern, Executive Director of the Housing Authority, shared a bit about the program. 


Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little about the inception of YouthBuild and its affiliation with the Housing Authority?

David Northern: The Housing Authority of Champaign County has been strategically developing affordable housing for seniors and families in Central Illinois inside and outside of Champaign County. Our agency currently has over $100 Million dollars in real estate development underway. With such a massive amount of money being spent on construction, our executive leadership team immediately recognized the need to provide young people with opportunities to earn skills and trades that lead to careers in construction. We believe that arming our young people in low income and poverty-stricken communities with those skills will lead to success.

SP: How many students do you have participating in the program now, and how many do you have room for?

Northern: We currently have 13 YouthBuild members. We have the capacity to serve 84 students in the thre year grant cycle.  We will be enrolling another cohort of students in about four weeks which will bring our overall total to 26 members by the end of July.

SP: How long does it take to complete, and what does that trajectory look like?

Northern: The program is designed to take a minimum of six months. YouthBuild is a self-paced program where students receive one-on-one instruction catered to their individual educational functioning levels and learning styles. Students spend approximately 50% of their time working on completing a high school diploma, 40% in on the job training, and 10% leadership development. Upon completion of YouthBuild, students will earn an accredited high school diploma through Penn Foster and a pre-apprenticeship certificate from the National Center for Construction Education and Research. 

A young adult in an orange t-shirt, mask, and black skull cap is standing with an arm raised and hand in a fist. Photo provided by HACC.Photo provided by HACC.

SP: The program is geared toward young people on the margins, and the reality of our nation and community is that Black youth are often those left on the margins. How do you see YouthBuild fit into the broader conversations about race and racism that the country is going through right now?

Northern: Youthbuild is giving young people a second and in some cases third chance at success. Most of our youth are marginalized and perceived to be thugs and hoodlums. We want to change that narrative at YouthBuild and show that our young people can be productive citizens in this society that’s trying to throw them away. Our youth are aware about the circumstances and events that’s going on in our society today, so they're dedicated to achieving and being successful despite what’s going on around them. Youthbuild is putting them on a path of success. [Here is an official statement from the HACC about the murder of George Floyd].

SP: Are there specific construction companies in town that you are partnering with to set students up with apprenticeships?

Northern: We are currently working on building partnerships with the local trade unions and construction companies to support our participants.

SP: Do students get paid for the construction work while they are in the program?

Northern: YouthBuild members earn an average of $87 per week. They also can earn additional bonuses as they boost their reading and math levels.

SP: If someone is interested in becoming a part of YouthBuild, what is the application process like?

Northern: After submitting an application, applicants are then invited to a two-week “Mental Toughness” orientation. Mental Toughness is a team building, physical and mental activity-based program that will provide young people with an opportunity to work strategically within a team setting while demonstrating their ability to persevere through difficult circumstances. During Mental Toughness, applicants can expect to be exposed to a career interest inventory and job assessment screening, construction related experiences and presentations, leadership challenges, as well as several team building and dependability activities.

If some is interested in joining YouthBuild they can reach out to our Case Manager Jobie Taylor at jobiet@hacc.net and/or call him at 217-974-1327. For more information about the YouthBuild program, we encourage you to visit our website at www.hacc.net/youthbuild.

A computer screen showing a Zoom meeting with Rodney Davis, David Northern, and a group of students in a classroom. Photo provided by HACC.YouthBuild students spoke with Representative Rodney Davis, a supporter of the program, about the opportunities ahead of them and touched on the current civil unrest. Photo provided by HACC.

SP: How have you had to adapt programming due to COVID?

Northern: We’ve conducted our first mental toughness virtually through Zoom, and I must admit it was a success. We went through two weeks of mental toughness where we had various assignments for the youth to complete. The program launched on June 1st and we’ve been rotating days through Zoom and the classroom, but at the same time abiding by the social distancing as we meet.

A group of YouthBuild students and leaders, all in masks and orange t-shirts, stand in a group with both arms raised. Photo provided by HACC.CRIS Healthy-Aging Center of Champaign provided items which Housing Authority of Champaign YouthBuild packed and delivered to seniors: meals, masks, sanitizer, and other needed items during COVID-19. Photo provided by HACC.

SP: Who will find the most success in this program?

Northern: Youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are high school dropouts, adjudicated youth, youth aging out of foster care, youth with disabilities, homeless youth, and other disconnected youth populations. Our program provides basic education, occupational training, and leadership training while addressing several core issues important to low-income communities: affordable housing, education, employment and leadership development.

Top photo provided by HACC.