Leonard Pitts Jr

They are their own fixer-uppers

PHILADELPHIA -- They say the house was a mess.

There were holes in the floor. The walls were pulling apart. There were no windows, doors or fixtures. It was filled with trash. The stairs were unsafe. There were dead cats in the basement.

Today, a construction crew -- all young and black -- is at work on the house. There are new cabinets in the kitchen, fresh paint on the walls. New stairwells lead up to the three bedrooms and down to the basement, where there is a new heating unit and no dead cats.

There is still work to be done before a ribbon cutting with the new owner later this month. The joists in the basement still have to be painted, carpet has yet to be laid. But the house is far enough along that the picture of how it used to be is hard to envision.

"We framed the walls and put 'em up, " Debra Eaddy, a diminutive 19-year-old, tells me. "We helped the electrician install electricity. We put the floor down and painted. We put the windows in. We [plastered] the basement and helped put the cabinets in. Some of us come out on weekends so we can get the house done and ready for our ribbon cutting."

Why would they come out on their own time?

"This is our house, " says Eaddy, "so we got to help put it together."

I am here at the invitation of a program called YouthBuild. They contacted me after hearing about What Works, my series of columns on programs that are making a difference in the lives of African-American young people. They thought I would be impressed. I am.

YouthBuild USA (www.youthbuild.org) was founded in 1978 by Dorothy Stoneman, a white elementary school teacher in Harlem who was frustrated by the poverty, idleness and random death that were so much a part of her students' lives. She began to ask them what they would do to improve their communities if they could. "One of the answers was, 'We would fix those abandoned buildings and we would make them fit to live in.' "

Almost 30 years later, YouthBuild, with funding from government and private sources, operates 226 programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and various U.S. territories. The program offers high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24 a chance to earn their GEDs while learning job skills under the tutelage of construction professionals on the YouthBuild staff. The rehabbed homes are sold to low-income buyers.

It works. According to a 2004 Brandeis University survey, 75 percent of YouthBuild graduates were either in post-secondary education or working jobs that paid an average of $10 an hour. Of those who had previously run afoul of the law, fewer than 15 percent got in trouble again. Seventy percent were registered to vote.

"I believe in the inherent goodness of every human being, " says Stoneman. "And I believe every young person, no matter what rotten thing they might have done by mistake or fate, that inside them lives a beautiful human being who is eager to do good. They often say, 'I don't know why you believe in me. I don't know what you see in me that I don't see in myself. I don't know why the staff cares about me, but they obviously do. And they've made it possible for me to care about myself.' "

The metaphor is as obvious as it is irresistible.

In repairing broken homes, these kids -- teenaged mothers, car thieves, drug addicts' daughters and homeless men's sons -- repair their own broken lives. They learn, perhaps for the first time, how competence feels. And it is a short leap from competence to confidence and from there, to achievement.

As YouthBuild student Candice Paul puts it, "I love coming home dirty, because I know I did something."