The courtyard at YouthBuild was built and decorated by YouthBuild participants. The students learn valuable building and environmental skills to help them get jobs. Except for the first building, everything on the campus was built by YouthBuild students. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

Young adults who don’t finish high school or gain any job skills aren’t likely to make it very far in life. Many languish, unable to secure work or a home, and many end up in that situation because of trauma or learning disabilities.

But one organization in Louisville is doing what it can to reverse that cycle by helping young adults get their GED and obtain much needed skills for the workforce.

YouthBuild Louisville, which is a branch of the international YouthBuild organization, helps people with a program that pays them for work they do while training them to do it. The participants gain skills to help them in the building trades and health care, two areas that are desperate for talent.

The organization, located at 800 S. Preston St., is now in the middle of its capital campaign to build a second office building, which will house classrooms, a fitness center and offices. There also will be a laundry and showers, because many participants don’t have reliable access to those facilities.

The $1.9 million capital campaign is now at 52 percent of its goal, and the foundation of the new building is in place. Construction on the building is scheduled to begin soon.

Once the capital campaign and new building are finished, YouthBuild will be able to train 100 people each year, up from the 35 to 40 currently. With about 1,000 kids in Jefferson County Public Schools leaving school without a diploma, it’s still only a drop in the education-gap bucket.

Lynn Rippy, executive director of YouthBuild Louisville, has been the head of the organization for the 17 years it’s been in existence.

“We want to make sure that we’re serving a really good number of those young people in very varied ways,” Rippy said. “And you know, to every one of them, that means something different. And really our secret sauce is that we are small enough that we can be flexible.”

That work has made a huge difference, said Matthew Rapson-Bryant, a 21-year-old South End resident.

Matthew Rapson-Bryant, a graduate of YouthBuild, is now an Americorps Vista and teaches at YouthBuild. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

“This company changed my life,” Rapson-Bryant said. “I learned how to use power tools, table saws, I’ve learned how to build the cedar (planting) boxes, basically learned how to do basic construction work that way it gives me a platform go off of once I leave here.”

Rapson-Bryant already had his GED before he came to YouthBuild, but he’s since earned many construction certifications and now teaches at YouthBuild.

Before he came into the program, he had gotten into some trouble with the law, but one day, Rapson-Bryant said he was walking by the building and saw a huge banner with a photo of YouthBuild participants working on a project, and he noticed someone he knew in the photo.

He described that person as someone he would have walked to the other side of the street to avoid. But the guy now has a good job, his own house and a BMW, and that’s all Rapson-Bryant needed to hear.

While YouthBuild doesn’t promise BMWs to its participants, it does help them get on a path to supporting themselves where they might not have before. Many of the participants are homeless or have small children of their own. Rippy and her staff try to get them housing and an education for starters, as well as hands-on experience to get them job skills.

A playground and wine trellises designed and built by YouthBuild participants. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

All participants are Americorps volunteers and have to serve 450 hours of community service each year.

They graduate with a college scholarship and are encouraged to put money aside in a savings account, which YouthBuild matches one-to-one when they graduate.

Rippy said YouthBuild is now working on ways to help some students buy a car, because getting to a construction job site can sometimes be nearly impossible to do on a city bus.

“These kids never heard that they were part of the community,” said Jim Voyles, chair of Youthbuild’s capital campaign. “Nobody ever suggested that. In fact to the contrary, they don’t feel part of the community. How could they? But when they come here, they hear that they are part of the community. Not only that but they have a duty to give back to the community … and so they gain pride. They gain pride because they’re involved, and suddenly, they have the idea that, ‘Yeah, I’m part of this community, and I have responsibilities too, and if I screw up, it’s affecting more than just me.’”

The students learn construction skills, along with life skills and environmental science, so they can be good stewards of the environment, too. On campus, there is a garden where they learn to grow food and about good nutrition.

Tanisha Gurley just graduated from high school with the help of YouthBuild. She credits the organization for helping pull her out of her shell. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

Tanisha Gurley, 19, was a soft-spoken Portland teen who had dropped out of Shawnee High School without her diploma because she was very close to her older sister. When her sister graduated, she didn’t want to be away from her. Just last week, Gurley graduated.

She came to YouthBuild in February because she was tired of sitting around the house, she said.

“It’s changed me. At first, I was shy and I was in my shell. It brought me out of my shell,” she added.

Education Coordinator Ray’Shann Martin said she joined YouthBuild because she saw that the nonprofit was working with the total student and helping them with counseling services and getting them in the right place for learning to happen.

“In a lot of educational institutions, it’s just about the coursework, the high school content,” she said. “And we aren’t given the resources or the time to really help students outside of the classroom. So YouthBuild would just be a prime model of what I felt like education should really look like. You know, we really pay attention to all of the barriers the student has, and that makes learning possible for them. It’s a compassionate program.”

Right now, participants are counseled in an open room, but when the new building is built, there will be counseling offices so that personal issues can be addressed in a more private way, helping students overcome some of their traumas.

“Some of these kids get up so incredibly early because they have to take as many as five bus connections to get here,” Voyles said. “The leadership here is so affecting. They not only do their job, but they get personally involved with the students as you must, because they’re needy, and one of the big things they don’t have, many of them, is love. Love they can rely on, love that’s there whether they goof up or not.”

That love has translated to about an 88 percent success rate of participants, Rippy noted. These are kids who are now supporting themselves and their families, paying taxes and giving back.

Lisa Hornung a native of Louisville and has worked in local media for more than 15 years as a writer and editor. Before that she worked as a writer, editor and photographer for community newspapers in Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, and after a 20-year career in journalism, she obtained a master’s degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University in 2016.


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