Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Salt Lake City group fights crime by putting youth to work

Safety is one of the most basic requirements of desirable communities. If residents are afraid to walk down their streets, or even to socialize in their own front yards, they will flee the first chance they get – and certainly won’t engage with their community, much less their neighbors.

“We learned early on that we couldn’t just focus on housing,” says Maria Garciaz, executive director of NeighborWorks Salt Lake. “What’s the point of developing more housing if the crime rate is going up and people are afraid to live there?”

That’s what her organization discovered when it first began serving the west side of Salt Lake City (the quintessential “other side of the tracks”). It was 1982, and as members of the organization talked to stakeholders in the community, one problem kept surfacing: the neighborhood was increasingly ruled by gangs. Thus, the West Side Youth Project was born.  It gave youth hanging out on the street corners productive work, along with the skills and motivation to forge a new direction for their lives. Garciaz was probation officer for the local juvenile court at the time, and many of the youth were her charges. It was a natural fit for her to come on board, first as a volunteer, then as director of what came to be known as the YouthWorks program. Garciaz was named executive director in 1989, just a few years before the organization joined the NeighborWorks network – a milestone for which it celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Other services offered by NeighborWorks Salt Lake are commercial-development projects to reverse blight in retail districts, development of affordable housing and resident leadership training.

In the early years, YouthWorks targeted hard-core gang members, with youth enrolled for a year at a time. “We saw some amazing changes in their lives,” Garciaz recalls. “Last Monday, a young man who graduated from the program in 1989 walked through the door. I said, ‘I’m so glad to see you’re alive!’ He was so much more than alive…He now has a successful job as a machinist. Another graduate is now on our board of directors!”

A YouthWorks team frames a new, affordable home.
Today, YouthWorks focuses on prevention -- helping larger numbers of young people before they become “hard core.” About 14 youth are enrolled in each three-month “crew” – mostly 16- and 17-year-olds during the school year, and as young as 14 in the summers. Three days a week, they work from 1-6 p.m. building one of the organization’s affordable homes – from framing the building to pouring concrete and painting walls (with expert contractors providing on-site training). “Being able to build a home, to see their work come to such concrete, successful fruition, teaches so many important lessons,” explains Garciaz. “For instance, if the framing doesn’t turn out right, they can take it apart and re-build it. What better analogy for life?”

On the afternoons when they aren’t working on a home or community project, the youth learn the financial-management skills they need to wisely spend the weekly stipend they earn while employed with YouthWorks. Sometimes, they do painting jobs for other nonprofits such as museums, in return for free tickets or a pizza party. “It’s a subtle way to engage them with the community,” she says.

Teamwork is a strong emphasis of the youth program.
Twice a year, female crews are recruited to assure that hormones don’t get in the way of the learning experience. The organization also actively recruits “new Americans” for all of its sessions. Since Utah is a federally designated resettlement state, many youth now come from families who emigrated from countries as far-flung as Afghanistan and Somalia. To date, more than 1,800 youth have graduated from the program.

“We define success as completing high school, staying out of the court system and – once they graduate – either enrolling in college or getting a job,” says Garciaz. Program participants are surveyed a year after they graduate from YouthWorks, but she knows that the impact has longevity. One group of about 100 graduates was contacted 10 years later, and 80 percent owned their own homes, with many starting their own businesses.

“This isn’t the kind of program that produces immediate results, and it will never be economically self-sufficient,” says Garciaz. “But think about it. Seventy-five percent of our kids are poor, often from families of color, who aren’t reached by any other program. They’d be lost to the streets without YouthWorks. What better investment is that?”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.