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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we'll hear the story of Dawn Leamon, a KBR contractor in Iraq. She says she was raped by two Americans last February in Basra.

COHEN: But first, kids who are out of school, out of work and in trouble with the law can easily slip through the cracks. Especially, in parts of the country like the hurricane ravaged gulf coast. Americorp's YouthBuild program is trying to help teens by getting them invested in themselves and in rebuilding their communities. From Mississippi, NPR's Audie Cornish has more.

Unidentified Man # 1: You've got the safety glasses?

Unidentified Man # 2: Yeah. I got them. I'm prepared.

Unidentified Man # 1: Well, double yo sheet, yo.

AUDIE CORNISH: The busy workers on this construction site didn't know a jigsaw from a framing square, when they started on this modest house on a quiet corner in Gulfport, Mississippi last fall. But now, Dravon Shorter (ph) and Lionel Hamilton (ph) say, everyone's got a favorite job.

Mr. DRAVON SHORTER (Worker, YouthBuild): Lionel, he like doing the tile. I like doing drywall pieces and wood and tape work. Most people like painting.

CORNISH: Hamilton and Shorter are among the 25 young people, who've been working on this project. They've already done more than a dozen homes and this one's for an elderly woman who lost hers during Katrina.

Mr. SHORTER: I wanted to ask the lady if we could, you know, like decorate her home but I guess she's goin do it herself. So, we did the best we could, man. This house came a long way.

CORNISH: That sense of ownership, and pride, is exactly what Rene Soule is going for with this group. Soule is a retired pastor and Baltimore housing advocate who uprooted his family to the Gulf Coast to start up a YouthBuild chapter in Gulfport.

Pastor RENE SOULE (Leader, YouthBuild): Everybody here's like Katrina, what can I do? What can I do? Well, you know, I wanted to do something long-term. I just didn't want to come down for a couple of weeks. I wanted to do something that was going to help build an infrastructure.

CORNISH: YouthBuild workers are mostly troubled dropouts, many already mired in the criminal justice system and several with kids of their own. The federally funded program offers them a chance to earn their GED and get paid while learning valuable construction skills, like cement mixing.

Unidentified Man # 3: So what you do is, you put a little bit, you could always add, but once you put water, you can't take it out. OK, so watch.

CORNISH: The affordable housing program usually works in areas of economic blight. Twenty-year-old Demitrius Jones (ph) lives in a community that is hurricane blighted, as well.

Mr. DEMITRIUS JONES (Worker, YouthBuild): Like for me, if it just distract me from just thinking about everything going on the outside of the world then I'm straight. That's why I can just sit in here and paint all day.

CORNISH: Jones is quietly touching up the white paint on the bedroom doors and up until this point he hasn't cracked a smile. He was in jail for burglary when the hurricane hit, as was his brother and drug addicted mother. Nobody was in the house, when it was struck by Katrina, and when it was demolished he was homeless.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. It would be nice to be working on my own house. That would be great. I would have no worries then I'd come to work faithfully every day and fix up my own house.

CORNISH: His story isn't unique. Rene Soule says one or two of his kids walked the streets all night until the program picks them up the next day.

Pastor SOULE: Some of them are just crashing. I mean, every week they're at a different place. We pick them up. They just go from one spot to another spot, to another spot. I mean, some of it's Katrina, some of it's poverty and some of it's a combination of both. Yes.

CORNISH: Some live with families or friends, crammed in FEMA trailers scattered across the area. So unlike most YouthBuild programs, the Gulfport kids have to be rounded up, every morning, in a two-hour long pick up that starts at seven a.m. Soule also meets with their probation officers and teachers.

Pastor SOULE: All of these young people, I've been to their homes and I mean, we're not knocking you know, the families, but they are busy trying to put their lives back together or busy trying to, you know, move forward from Katrina and that's a challenge in itself.

CORNISH: And yet, Soule says he wishes he could keep the kids 24/7, so they can focus on improving their lives, not just surviving. People who complete the YouthBuild program can earn a scholarship to a trade school degree. But more important to Rene Soule, most of the young adults in his program have kept out of jail since joining up. Audie Cornish, NPR News.

BRAND: More coming up on Day to Day, from NPR News.

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