Domingo Williams, a participant in the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program, gathers wood to help rebuild a gutted house in the Southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Domingo Williams, a participant in the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program, gathers wood to help rebuild a gutted house in the Southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Emily Bogle/NPR
Teenagers in Washington, D.C., face tough odds getting a job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of those looking for work can't find it — the highest rate in the country.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an organization that works with troubled teens in the district, is trying to address that problem by training young people in the construction trades.
The group has enlisted an army of volunteers and a handful of trainees for what it calls a "blitz build" — an effort to rebuild a gutted house in a single day.
On a warm spring morning, Jim Beck, the organization's development director, surveys the shell of a building in the city's Southeast neighborhood. There's a lot of work to be done before it can be transformed into a three-bedroom brick house for homeless youth.
"We're looking at where a bathroom will be, and they're framing up the spot where we'll be putting a tub later today," Beck says.
Many of the blitz build's 120 participating volunteers are in Washington for the American Institute of Architects conference. They stream in and out of the house carrying lumber and tools, much of it donated for the cause.
The day's tasks include installing new floors and windows, laying brick on an addition and building a greenhouse and garden, all in an effort akin to the ABC television series Extreme Makeover.
When complete, the "blitz build" house will become a residence for homeless youth.
When complete, the "blitz build" house will become a residence for homeless youth. Emily Bogle/NPR
'A Lot Of Prep'
But there is an important difference, Beck says. "[On] those shows, they don't really know all the stuff that goes in before they go on camera," he says. "There's a lot of prep that has to go [into it]."
Some of that prep includes training Domingo Williams, a lanky 18-year-old who hopes his work with the project will help lead to a job in construction.
Williams, who is also working toward his GED online, spends his spare time writing poetry and music. But he's not a man of many spoken words — until he gets talking about the upstairs of the house. He and his fellow trainees just spent several weeks tearing down walls and clearing debris.
"This right here? It was old," Williams says, gesturing to the now-stripped walls of the building's second floor. "We had to knock it out; it was old and rusty."
Williams was scared when the group first started gutting the house. "I thought there were going to be raccoons up here and everything," he says. "But I can't wait to see what it's going to be like when it's finished."
There are some construction tasks Williams says he's not equipped for — like working on the roof in the rain or the summer heat.
"Raining and all that outside, and they still up there," he says of some of his project colleagues. "I ain't going up there!"
Williams started the class with 34 other teens. Now, he's among 20 remaining trainees.
Following Rules, Shifting Attitudes
Tina-Rose Brown, a career counselor with the program, says the smaller group is no accident.
Cara Fuller, training director of the building program, says it's learning workplace etiquette, not construction skills, that is challenging for trainees.
Cara Fuller, training director of the building program, says it's learning workplace etiquette, not construction skills, that is challenging for trainees. Emily Bogle/NPR
"We're trying to weed out the young people who we feel may not be ready to get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and hit a hammer," she says. "Or to follow rules that include pulling up your pants, and making sure you use workplace-friendly language."
Brown's cellphone buzzes. It's one of the trainees, stranded and asking for someone to pick him up.
"We don't really have nobody who can come down there and get you, Adrian," Brown tells him. "Everybody's here, working."
"That's probably one of our largest challenges ... getting people here, on time," says Cara Fuller, director of the training program. "It's like, construction does not start at 1 o'clock, OK?' Like, 'You need to get here,' " she says. "Which really is a discussion about — what time did you go to bed?"
Fuller and the other instructors say they spend a lot of time helping the teens manage the realities of their lives, like a lack of transportation or problems at home.
"It's not the hard skills," Fuller says. "It's the soft skills that really you have to work on. Because you can teach them to use a hammer, but if you don't teach them the right attitude, they're not going to get it."
The Sasha Bruce Youthwork program is trying to place 10 to 15 of its current trainees in internships, with the hope that those positions will lead to full-time jobs. Eighty percent of the program's alumni are currently employed or have gone on to more schooling.
Trainee Domingo Williams says he's optimistic about his chances of getting a job, especially after he gets his certification.
By late afternoon, the day's blitz build is declared a success. An addition that started the day bare is now laid with brick. Empty spaces in the wall now have windows. And the house even has a functioning greenhouse and garden.
Asked if he would ever want to build his own house, Domingo laughs — and leaves the door open.
"Maybe. Though — nah," he considers. "Maybe, though."
Complete construction on the house is due to finish in July, with a move-in date planned for the fall.