By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Sabrina Suarez, 25, wanted to obtain her high school diploma. She struggled to stick with a program, but in August 2020, she joined Milwaukee Christian Center’s YouthBuild program.
Suarez is considered an Opportunity Youth, a term coined by the Milwaukee Christian Center. Paul Smith, the director of housing and construction manager, explained that Opportunity Youth are young adults ages 18 to 24, who are in search of opportunities to grow.
“These young adults have been often thrown to the side and not given the chance [and] not given the opportunity to grow,” Smith said. “And we don’t throw them away. Whatever has happened, we want to give them the chance to grow.”
Through the YouthBuild program, participants do up to 900 hours of construction and leadership training. Some of the participants such as Suarez also complete the high school equivalency degree program. The program lasts from nine to 12 months.
The organization recently received a grant from the Bader Philanthropies, which will help support the YouthBuild program for the next two years. Bridgett Gonzalez, a program officer at Bader Philanthropies explained that the grant will cover operational costs, training and supplies.
The Milwaukee Christian Center’s YouthBuild program checked all the boxes, Gonzalez said.
“We were impressed by the way which Milwaukee Christian Center homed in on this particular age group,” she said.
One of the key strategies at Bader Philanthropies is youth development, she said, adding that the YouthBuild program’s mission is multi-faceted: it works with the individual to improve the community.
“We make the assumption that everyone has leadership skills; we just want to give them the opportunity to show them,” Karen Higgins, executive director of Milwaukee Christian Center said.
Suarez, for example, learned how to become a team player.
“I wasn’t a very social person but being in this program I’ve been able to speak out more and learn a lot of things about myself I didn’t know before,” Suarez said. “With siding, I’m a quick learner, and a lot of other participants came to me and I found myself helping others.”
In addition to developing her hard and soft skills, Suarez earned her degree. Since she’s giving birth in July, she’s not sure what will happen next, but she’s considering an apprenticeship or attending MATC.
To participate in the program, young adults can apply through Lois Nugent, the YouthBuild Coordinator. The program receives an average of 30 to 50 applications a year, and it generally accepts 23 individuals, Nugent said.
After completing a mental workshop and OSHA training, the cohort for the year will learn what they’ll be doing on the worksite. They work with power tools, they’re on the ladder, they’re reading the measuring tape and more, Smith said.
“On the worksite I learned how to do siding, how to do drywall, finish carpentry and tiling,” Suarez said, adding that she uses her newfound skills to help her maintenance man improve her home.
In addition to the hard skills, Smith makes sure they gain soft skills or essential skills, as he calls them such as workplace etiquette. He noted that he learns from them too.
“These guys, they teach me every day that they want to learn, and they want to be counted, they want to think that they have value,” Smith said. “Often times they’re told that they’re not and they don’t. They teach me that they do, and they think of themselves in that way.”
Currently, YouthBuild is working on two homes, one at 1009 S. 17th St. and the other at 2933 N. 26th St. Since 2004, the group has built and sold 18 homes to low-income individuals.
Higgins explained that the program tends to build more houses than renovate them. It is more cost effective, she said. When working with homes that need to be gutted or renovated, anything could happen in terms of cost, she said. However, by building a home from the ground up, the group is better able to gauge the cost.
Construction of the house at 1009 S. 17th St., began two-and-a-half years ago, Smith said. While it usually takes a year or two, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed them, he said.
Smith often tells participants that even if they don’t put the final touches on the house, their work helped contribute to the final product.
Once the house is complete, Milwaukee Christian Center works with a realtor to sell the house to low-income families, Higgins said. Often times, the house sells in a matter of hours, Smith added.
“I’m happy with everything and I’m proud of everything I’ve done,” Suarez said. “When I first started, I couldn’t hit the nail right, it kept bending, but I finally got the hang of that. Everything I’ve learned so far has brought a better part of me out.”