Fifty students from the West Jackson Community Development Corporation YouthBuild program, decked in black caps and gowns, walked in front of family and friends on July 23, 2022, with instructors handing them the GEDs and diplomas they worked so hard to earn.

YouthBuild is an eight-month program that helps students between the ages of 16 and 24 who dropped out of high school obtain their GEDs and build leadership-development skills. Students spend 50% of their time working toward their GEDs in the classroom, 40% of their time learning about construction and receiving on-site job training, and 10% building life skills.

“Many of the kids said they were just at home doing nothing,” Youth Build Director and CEO Linda Carter told the Crirec. “(They) dropped out of high school and didn’t really want to continue to be in the streets or do the things that they were doing with their friends. And so one of their other friends told them about us, and so they enrolled.”

The program first started in 1997 after the Department of Labor provided funding to West Jackson CDC, a private nonprofit, which serves as an entity for community-based leadership and revitalization of the community surrounding Jackson State University. Through the program, students can earn certificates in plumbing, carpentry, landscaping or general construction.

During the course of the eight-month Youth Build program, students spend their time working toward their GED, learning housing education, receiving on-site job training, and developing life skills. Photo courtesy West Jackson CDC

“We have a YouthBuild project manager. We have a job developer. We have a case manager. We have a GED instructor, and then we have a construction manager. All of these qualified staff persons establish leadership-development activities for the students,” Carter told the Crirec.

Construction managers from Home Builders Institute train students using a curriculum where they learn to insulate windows and hot-water heaters, to use tools, to measure rooms for carpet or tile, and other skills. Students then apply these skills by helping to build affordable housing in the Bon Air subdivision off Capitol Street and in the Chamber subdivision off Broad Street and Grand Avenue.

“Because the West Jackson CDC owns the home, after completion of the home, we are able to sell that unit to an eligible low-income home buyer,” Carter said. “The house is nice and pretty, and it certainly uplifts the community.”

Students also receive a stipend of $200 a week, participate in community-service projects, and take field trips to college campuses like Alcorn State University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Jackson State University and Alabama State University. Carter noted that a lot of students had never toured a college campus, so giving them that opportunity was a rewarding experience for her.

“When you see these young people coming in where they appear that they have nowhere to turn, they become our family,” she said. “A lot of things that’s not in the budget or that’s not on our agenda to do, we end up doing because they become family to us and they just depend and rely on us.”

Using the skills learned throughout the program, YouthBuild students helped build affordable housing in the Chambers subdivision and in the Bon Air subdivision off Capitol Street in Jackson, Miss., this year before graduating in July. Photo courtesy of West Jackson CDC

The nonprofit also partners with other entities to help implement the leadership-development component of the program. West Jackson CDC partners with B1 Nursing and Nissan so that students wanting to enter the medical field or who are interested in manufacturing can respectively learn more about those paths.

A student who graduated from the program in 2007 became a teacher aide at Jackson Public Schools and then went on to work at the Hinds County Sheriff Department. “And he is still there. He came to our graduation in uniform and he has his own business, a security company. I’m so proud of him,” Carter said with visible pride.

Another graduate received her phlebotomy certification and is now working in Atlanta as a phlebotomist. One young man who gave the staff some problems received his GED and his commercial driver’s license and now works for a trucking company making $70,000 a year, the director said.

West Jackson CDC is always looking for partners to expand the YouthBuild program as it does not always have the budget to spend on everything they need for the students, Carter said.

“We are always looking for partners, even if it’s not any money involved, to come in and be a mentor for these young people and to come in and give some great sound advice to them about being a productive citizen, about financial management, about what to expect out there,” she said.

To learn more about the YouthBuild program, visit the West Jackson CDC site. Applications are available online or for pickup at the CDC building located at 1328 Highway 80 in Jackson.

Jackson, Miss., native Aliyah Veal is a proud alumna of Spelman College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 2017. Afterward, she attended the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York, gaining a master’s degree in journalism in 2018. After moving back home in 2019, she interned at the Jackson Free Press, covering city council and Jackson neighborhoods before moving up to culture writer. Her interests include tattoos, music and food, really, really good food. She now writes about culture, music and the arts for the Crirec.