04/09/12 — Making a new choice for a successful future

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Making a new choice for a successful future

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on April 9, 2012 1:46 PM

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Professor Harold Warren looks on as James Joyner works on classwork during a class at Wayne Community College. Joyner is working on his high school diploma and GED, and is a part of the YouthBuild program at Wayne Community College.

Kendra Watkins can see her future clearly today when she sits in class at Wayne Community College, but she remembers a time when she had no plan and was just living her life one day at a time.

She dropped out of school at Eastern Wayne High, but enrolled at Wayne Community College the same day. She says the crowd she was hanging with back then made it hard to stay focused on school, and she even had some issues with the law. Eventually she just stopped going to classes.

With no diploma, she said she was looking for a second chance.

"If kids have felonies, misdemeanors, court troubles, they're considered bad," she said.

Now 20, Ms. Watkins is a couple years behind in getting her high school diploma, but she already has plans to continue her education at Wayne Community College before heading to East Carolina University where she hopes to earn a master's degree in psychology.

She credits Smart Choices for Youth and its YouthBuild program with setting her on the right path.

"If it wasn't for YouthBuild, I probably wouldn't be talking about my future," she said.

There are countless others who have similar stories stemming from Smart Choices, which Daryl Woodard began more than two decades ago to help out disenfranchised youths.

The organization has been setting young people back on the right track in the community for years, but a grant last year from the U.S. Department of Labor gave Smart Choices a new tool: the YouthBuild program, which offers opportunities for young adults to earn their education while picking up valuable trade skills through building houses for Habitat For Humanity of Wayne County.

"They're rebuilding their lives while they're rebuilding the community," Woodard said.

Woodard's organization received one of three grants awarded in the state and the first of its kind in Wayne County. The $875,000 goes mostly toward paying the participants in the program, who are able to work, learn and pursue their education all at once.

In the year since it began, YouthBuild participants have built four houses in Wayne County, while gaining construction and carpentry skills that give them the ability to find jobs.

"That's what YouthBuild is all about," Woodard said. "Making them employable and giving them a trade."

But the benefits can go much further than that, like in Ms. Watkins' case.

"All the doors were closed and Mr. Woodard was there and they opened," she said, now so close to her diploma that she can't hide the excitement from her eyes when she talks about her future.

Woodard says the grant pays for itself, allowing 25 down-on-their-luck young people a second lease on life, giving them stipends and paying enrollment fees, as well as paying for job preparation skills through mock interviews and resume workshops. The vast majority of the federal money, he said, goes to the students.

But only about 20 percent of the first round of applicants were accepted last year, and this year promises to be another competitive process. Applicants must prove they are ready to give back to the community.

"(As part of the process) they have two weeks to prove to us that they're serious about it," he said. "It's not a right. It's a privilege. They have to earn it and keep earning it."

The impact on the community is felt in many ways, he said. The program not only keeps troubled youths out of trouble, but gives less fortunate families the chance of owning a home.

"They're helping out four families that otherwise wouldn't be living in (a house)," Woodard said.

Woodard is quick to add, however, that it's the community's investment in the participants that is truly reaping the benefits. He said cooperation from Goldsboro city officials through donations, Habitat for Humanity of Wayne County and the Wayne Community teaching staff allowed his organization to acquire the grant.

"Everybody in the community is helping these kids," he said. "It's not so much about Smart Choices for Youth. The grant is because of the collaborative spirit of this community. Now, 25 young people have been selected to change their lives."

And the impact goes even deeper than setting them on the right track and building homes, he said.

"Before they were unemployed. Now they're paying taxes into the community. Now they're on the other side," he said.

And because the program follows up with participants, they will hopefully stay on the other side, Woodard said, which means when James Joyner finally reaches his goal of working as an auto mechanic, he will still have the support he gained when he was learning about shingling and construction work this past year.

Joyner, now 18, was charged with his first crime when he was 15 and struggled to stay out of jail for years until he had finally had enough.

"I said, 'I can't go back no more.' I just wanted to stay out of trouble," he said.

Two stays of 34 and 27 days each in jail had gotten to him, but he couldn't motivate himself to straighten up. Finally he decided he needed to get back to school so he could improve his situation.

"I had to realize that I needed it," he said.

He found out about Smart Choices for Youth through church. He said the educational portion of the program intrigued him, but added that the job training was a plus.

He started with the program in June 2011, which was just in time, he said.

"I was about to go back to the streets real hard," he said.

Now, after some hard work and a lot of tall ladders, he says he has never been more focused in school. If he works hard, he said he will have his GED in December.

Before he became involved with YouthBuild, he said he couldn't see a reason to improve his situation and couldn't control his temper.

"I felt like nobody cares, so why should I care. Now I see life differently. Now I'm in a place in my life -- my anger is controlled. It's a real life changer."