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Pelican Award: River City YouthBuild

ELIZABETH CITY – It’s a perverse irony that the River City Community Development Corp. is sandwiched between Taco Bell and Sonic. The smell of food pervades the tiny parking lot. Many kids in the nonprofit’s YouthBuild program, however, come hungry because eating is a luxury.

“We do serve the poorest and most vulnerable young people in the region,” said Angie Wills, the YouthBuild program manager, adding that the program partners with a local food bank and regularly serves students meals onsite.

YouthBuild has been in Elizabeth City since 1999, helping the city’s neediest. It recently turned its attention to helping the environment as well. For those efforts, the program won a Pelican Award this year from the N.C. Coastal Federation.

Dorothy Stoneman started the educational and job training program in Harlem in the 1970s.

“She saw a lot of dilapidated buildings, trash, blight,” Wills said. “She saw youth standing around and thought it would be the perfect marriage. She took high school dropouts and made them a part of their community.”

YouthBuild students help build an oyster reef at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. 

YouthBuild has more than 270 sites nationally for disadvantaged students ages 16 to 24. It provides PACT (Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training)—the Home Builders Institute’s construction curriculum.

“We in turn take them out into the community, rehabilitate low-income housing,” Wills said.

Students seeking a high-school diploma are referred to a community college.

YouthBuild goals are broader: GED certificate attainment; numeracy and literacy gains; low recidivism; placement in jobs and post-secondary education; and retention in those placements.

“It’s about empowering them to take control of their own lives,” Wills said. “That’s something even at 22 or 24 they’ve never had to do.

“They get here at 16, and you think, ‘Oh they’re such a baby,’ but they have been there and done that,” she said. “They’ve tried everything else. There is really nowhere else to go. It’s more for us a transformation program.”

A case manager works with students to address their individual barriers to success. Staff regularly schedule motivational speakers, and many community leaders serve as mentors, Wills added.

Students look at social, political and civic issues, and, “if you were in the penal system, how you got there,” Wills said. “If you used to sell drugs, that’s a form of entrepreneurship, just illegal. So how can you turn that into something more wholesome, where you’re giving back to the community?”

As an AmeriCorps site, students become automatic AmeriCorps members and earn an education award for college if they complete 450 community service hours in one year.

Angie Wills

“The community now looks at you differently,” Wills said of students completing service hours. “You’re no longer a liability, depending on welfare. Now you’re not only gainfully employed, you’re paying taxes, you’re enrolled in school.”

Two GED teachers are housed in the building, both carrying 40 years of teaching experience.

If students want their certificate, Wills said, they will get it: “The teachers are just that good.”

One young lady, Johnetta, had tried on her own for two years to pass the GED test, but passed after just 22 days in YouthBuild, Wills said, smiling with pride.

In the main classroom, she put on a DVD of Johnetta speaking to an audience in Raleigh.

From ages 7 to 9, she was put in 32 different foster homes, after having been taken away from her parents, Johnetta told the audience. With two kids of her own now, her desire to have them stay with her and to not go through what she did inspired her to continue her education.

The center’s staff met the federation’s executive director at a meeting and mutually decided the programs should partner, said Sara Hallas, the federation’s educator in Manteo.

For the past year and a half when the program is in session, Hallas has alternatively gone into their classroom one month, and the next month, students have gone to a project site for hands-on service learning.

“Our youth need to know what’s going on with environment,” Wills said. “We’re so close to the coast, we need to expose them to this. It’s been a really good relationship.”

Thirty to 40 YouthBuild students have volunteered with the federation.

Students in the YouthBuild program in Elizabeth City perform a variety of service projects to develop skills. Photos: YouthBuild



“We train them in low-impact development, installing rain gardens and designing rain gardens, so that’s another skill set they have,” said Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist and manager of the federation’s Northeast Region office.

As students repair low-income housing as part of their service hours, implementing low-impact development techniques will help reduce runoff, Hallas said.

Students helped install rain gardens at First Flight Middle School and Kitty Hawk Elementary School, contributed to the living shoreline project at Durant’s Point and helped build the oyster reef in the sound behind Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

“Some students, even though they’re only an hour and a half away, had never been to the coast before,” Fleckenstein said. “They were excited to be there. We were excited to see them.”

Naomi Davis, a 25-year-old former YouthBuild student, recalled taking a boat to Durant’s Point and planting seedlings.

“I didn’t think I’d like it,” Davis said. “But it was fun, even though it was hot.”

She starts studying business administration at College of the Albemarle (COA) this semester and credits YouthBuild with changing her life.

“The teachers are so nice. They take chances for us,” Davis said. “It feels like family, even the students. I got to know everyone on a personal level.”

Phillip Blount, another former YouthBuild student, echoed her sentiments.

“It’s not like your normal school,” the 21-year-old college sophomore said. “It’s more like a family-type of thing.”

He spoke to the valuable life lessons he learned there: Managing money, building up credit, that hard work pays off, the importance of respect and other “skills you’re going to need to know to get a job and do well.”

The federation has gotten a grant to plant a rain garden at the YouthBuild Center this fall, Hallas said. Students will also soon install a greenhouse behind the building that last year’s students built.

About the Author

Corinne Saunders

Corinne Saunders is a native of the Outer Banks. She has written for various publications in many capacities since her senior year of undergrad at Appalachian State University. She wrote full-time for a weekly newspaper in the North Carolina mountains and, later, was full-time education reporter for a daily paper close to the coast. She currently freelances to maximize time with her daughter, covering everything from investigative stories to features to environmental issues.