COLUMBIA — When Rashad Washington was released from prison earlier this year, he decided he wanted to turn his life around.
But there weren't many places that would hire someone with a criminal record. That’s when he discovered Columbia Builds Youth.
“It was the only opportunity I had,” the 22-year-old Columbia man said, “so I took it.”
Columbia Builds Youth, founded in 2003, is a branch of the national YouthBuild program that teaches construction skills to young people ages 16 to 24 while helping them earn their GED. The program is set to receive $1.1 million in stimulus funds over the next two years to keep the program going.
Washington, who has lived in Columbia all his life, said the program has not only helped him grow as a person by teaching him commitment and determination, but it has also given him the opportunity to give back to the area where he grew up.
“It’s taking people from the community to help rebuild the community,” he said. “Especially those who are used to tearing it down.”
And rebuilding is exactly what Columbia Builds Youth students are doing. After three months of training, students move from the classroom to the real world, using their newly acquired construction skills to build houses for low-income families in Columbia. The houses must pass the same inspections as houses built by private contractors.
Gary Taylor, project director, said the houses that students build add value to the community and transform people’s way of thinking.
“Once individuals become homeowners, they take more pride in the neighborhood, take care of it a lot better and take ownership of the neighborhood itself,” Taylor said.
In the next two years Columbia Builds Youth students will build six houses, up from the four-house goal set by Taylor in past years. Taylor said this is possible because stimulus funds have allowed the program to grow both locally and nationally. The influx of stimulus money has funded 121 new YouthBuild locations nationwide, according a report by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Taylor estimates that if half of the students recruited nationwide over the next two years graduate from the program and go on to find jobs, this will create an additional $45 million tax base for the federal government within a year.
That means the government will gain back nearly its entire $47 million investment in YouthBuild in a short period of time. This quick return is a large reason why the government is willing to fund the program, Taylor said.
Although it is an opportunity to generate more tax revenue in the long run, not everyone makes it through the program’s rigorous selection process.
"This is only for people who are committed, for those ready to make a change in their lives," Taylor said.
Out of the 30 students who apply each session, about 10 make it through orientation. Taylor anticipates the program, which takes nine months to complete, will accommodate roughly 50 students in the next two years.
One of those students is 16-year-old Juan Carlos. Carlos, who said he used to be affiliated with a gang, moved to Columbia from California about two years ago to be with his mother. After dropping out of high school, he said if it hadn’t been for Columbia Builds Youth, he probably would have gotten involved with gang activity again.
He said the program will help him earn his GED and provide him with skills he has always wanted to learn.
“This was the career I was going to take anyway, so I might as well get a head start,” Carlos said.
Carlos is interested in heavy highway construction. Columbia Builds Youth has recently partnered with the Missouri Department of Transportation to provide students with the opportunity to work on state highway projects.
Taylor said that since a large chunk of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is going toward highway projects, the timing works out well.
“I just placed a girl with a MoDOT heavy highway construction crew, and she is making $26 an hour,” Taylor said. “She is making more than me.”