A YouthBuild enrollee and a construction instructor are cutting boards inside a home that is under construction.
Matthew Phillips, right, helps Dane Glass cut boards at YouthBuild Louisville’s home construction project on Dr WJ Hodge Street. | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

When Matthew Phillips, 23, joined the YouthBuild program in the fall, he lacked a high school diploma, discipline and soft skills that prevented him from finding a good job.

Next month, he will graduate from the local program with a high school degree and certifications in construction work that have helped him obtain a part-time job he’ll soon be starting, with hopes of joining the local carpenters union and gaining full-time employment.

YouthBuild Louisville annually helps 35 young adults on their path to self-sufficiency by providing them help with education, housing, counseling, job and life skills, such as getting glasses and learning how to obtain and fill a prescription. Thanks to an ongoing capital campaign, the organization hopes by this fall to nearly triple the number of annual participants.

YouthBuild is raising $1.9 million to expand its administration and education building on its 1-acre campus at 800 S. Preston St. On the building’s second floor, overhead lights recently illuminated vertical and horizontal beams that partitioned the space into what will become classrooms, offices, kitchens and bathrooms with showers.

YouthBuild is expanding its campus. The photo shows the main building's second story, which has been framed but is not yet completed.
YouthBuild is expanding its campus at 800 S. Preston. The second story, shown above, will house additional space for offices, a kitchen, classrooms and other areas. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

YouthBuild recently reached two-thirds of its fundraising goal, which marked the beginning of the public portion of the campaign, and Liz Hack, part of the campaign consulting team from Griffin Fundraising & Marketing, asked that Louisvillians continue to donate money to the cause. The organization expects to complete the campaign this fall.

YouthBuild Louisville is part of YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit that generated revenue in 2017 about $30 million, according to IRS records. Almost all of the revenue came from contributions and grants. The organization helps young adults, between 18 and 24 years, with education, counseling and job skills.

YouthBuild also handles recruiting, resume building and providing interviewing skills for SummerWorks, a local program that helps young Louisvillians connect with local employers that are offering summer jobs. YouthBuild also shares an administrative site and operational costs with Project Warm, which helps low-income residents, seniors and people with disabilities cut energy costs by providing them with free insulation services.

Phillips, who is from Valdosta, Ga., but has lived in Louisville for six years, said he saw a YouthBuild flyer and applied for one of the 35 spots but did not make it the first time. The organization typically gets 150 or more applications for the spots and selects 70 for initial interviews, to determine which candidates can withstand the program’s rigors.

Work and study

Once he got into the program, Phillips said he worked hard to achieve his goals. He came to the YouthBuild campus usually at 7 a.m. to learn and do construction work until 3:30 p.m. The YouthBuild crew is finishing a duplex at 403 Dr. WJ Hodge St. The home is owned by the Urban League.

Phillips earns minimum wage for the work, which includes cutting lumber, processing materials, putting up framing and working on the roof. The home is expected to be completed in a couple of months.

“It’s been very challenging,” Phillips said, “but at the end of the day, I can show my (future) kids one day, ‘Hey, I built that house.’”

Meanwhile, he has obtained certifications, including OSHA 10, HazCom and CPR.

For the first five months in the program, Phillips usually worked on his education after finishing construction work in the late afternoon. Sometimes that meant studying for 30 minutes, he said. Other days, it meant hitting the books for hours. He got so focused on his studies one day that he stayed late, accidentally got locked in the building and had to call YouthBuild staff to let him out.

While attending the program, Phillips has been living in a YouthBuild apartment.

A photo of YouthBuild counselor Robert Tinker
Robert Tinker

Robert Tinker, a YouthBuild case manager, and counselor by trade, said when Phillips was assigned to him, he quickly realized the young man dealt with many challenges — like most YouthBuild clients.

Tinker said Phillips was dealing with family issues — his mother had given him up at a young age, and he had gone through foster care and adoption — had lived in several states, was quasi-homeless and struggled with legal and emotional challenges.

“We sort through them and try to tackle them one at a time,” the counselor said.

Phillips’ highest hurdle was getting a high school diploma, Tinker said. The young adult did not get along with his teachers and resented that YouthBuild took his phone because he was not paying attention in class.

“As people just didn’t give up on him, he came to love them,” Tinker said.

Getting the diploma gave Phillips the self-confidence to tackle other challenges, he said.

‘Life-changer’

Tinker said that when young adults join the YouthBuild program, they are not self-sufficent, they often do not have a lot of options and do not know how to take advantage of the few options they do have.

Graduates of the program often share their stories on Facebook and have started businesses, or are working in construction, social work, nursing and just about any other career, he said.

About half of the YouthBuild graduates go on to college.

“Those are people who might be incarcerated or dead or living in poverty,” Tinker said.

Instead, he said, they’re contributing to the community in many ways.

Hack said the program’s success rate exceeds 90%.

The YouthBuild expansion will provide the nonprofit with greater flexibility and additional educational offerings, as well as more space to help more young adults, Tinker and Hack said. The 8,000-square-foot addition will house classrooms for environmental, nursing and culinary classes, administration areas, space for Project Warm, as well as showers and laundry facilities, which are provided to program participants, many of whom are homeless.

Phillips’ path is not moving in a straight line — attendance issues cost him a construction job — but Tinker said the YouthBuild staff will continue to support him even after graduation.

Phillips said the continued input is critical. He said he can call Tinker and other staffers at any time, to get advice on whatever challenges he faces.

As he sat in a chair recently on the ground floor of YouthBuild’s offices, Phillips reflected on his journey and said the agency’s impact cannot be overstated.

“It’s a life-changer,” he said.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.