YouthBuild Grads Stir Inspiration and Anger

The YouthBuild board of directors spent Friday morning at the Sasha Bruce YouthBuild Program in a very poor section of Washington, D.C. For two hours, we listened to six recent graduates talk about their pasts, their futures and the transformations they experienced because of the program and the commitment of the staff. 

All of the graduates were impressive, but Charmia Carolina was hands down the most passionate and articulate graduate and the anointed leader of the group.  After introductions, we were invited to watch a video, created by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, which features Charmia, her transformation and the impact it has had on her and her three children. Asked why she agreed to make the video, Charmia said that she went “from rock bottom to high heaven” because of YouthBuild and wanted to make sure other young people know that they can do the same.

There was no one who wasn’t moved, amazed or angered about the video. Even Charmia, who at 14 was a homeless young mom who eventually dropped out, abused drugs and had two more children. 

Charmia now works at a high school, where she mentors young women struggling as she did. She admits to being torn about the advice she gives them to tough it out to graduation. Torn not because she thinks graduating isn’t important, but because she knows that failing repeatedly is one of the things that led her to YouthBuild’s doorstep. She knows that many who graduate won’t be ready for college, an apprenticeship or a job. They won’t be ready the way she is now.

Charmia and the other graduates are proud that they made the cut: they are six of only 26 students selected for the local program last year, out of 353 who applied. 

That number, 353, haunts them and the staff.  How can that be acceptable, they ask? Some 353 young people admit they need help, expose their vulnerabilities, take the first step towards a new life – then the door slams. 

The graduates agree that not all of them were ready for YouthBuild. You have to want this, they said.  You have to get through the mental toughness boot camp, designed to bring prospective students face to face with the challenges they will have to overcome to get their GED or diplomas, and to graduate with certifications that can help them land jobs in construction, welding and information technology. But they know there were more than 26 who were ready to change.