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Youth Build Program Helps Young People Get Education, Job Skills

A new program has been putting young people to work in Cairo. 

The federally funded Youth Build program is helping ten youths get help with life skills and become employable by earning a GED, getting a drivers license and learning on-the-job construction training.
Sharonda Burris is building a ladder to help repair the roof of an old home on 12th Street in Cairo. The house is not much to look at now, but when Burris and the nine other workers are done with it, the place is going to shine.

Burris, a 24-year-old mother of four from Cairo, is taking part in the Youth Build program through the Delta Center in Cairo. 

Before she enrolled in the program, Burris had a hard time interacting with others.

“This program helped me out in different ways so far as my attitude, my temper, [and] me being socialized,” Burris said. “I didn’t associated with a lot of people. I wasn’t a people person. I was anti-social.”

Now, she said she works well with others and is even more motivated to work than she was before she entered Youth Build.

“There are times when I don’t want to get up,” Burris said, “but I have to encourage myself to get up, like, ‘This is to better yourself.’” 

24-year-old Alfonzia Swift of Cairo is currently working toward his GED and said he has seen big changes in himself since entering Youth Build in January. 

“The program has taught me how to work together in a group, how to be respectful [and] how to start something and finish it,” Swift said.

Youth Build foreman James Biggerstaff said the mission is to instill a mental image of success in youth before they enter society.

“The biggest thing for everyone to understand is that you can be anybody that you want to be,” Biggerstaff said.

He said this kind of transformation is the program’s goal, but it’s not always easy. 

“It’s very difficult to get them to believe in themselves,” Biggerstaff said.

 Youth Build is funded through a $750,000 grant from the Department of Labor and is designed to work with students ages 16 to 24. Those who participate have fallen between the cracks. Many did not finish high school and have run out of options to get their lives back on track.

When the program started in January there were 20 students, now there is half that number with some getting jobs before they finish the program and some leaving because they simply are not ready to change. Biggerstaff remembered when he first started working with the students six months ago. 

“In the beginning almost everything that you tried to do, they were combative,” Biggerstaff said.
He said despite choosing to enroll in the program, many did not want to change.

“They thought that society should accept them the way they are and they should be successful without having to do any of the extra work that it takes,” he said.

Students typically spend between six and nine months in the program,  but they can stay on for up to 18 months. 

The grant is scheduled to last for three years, and once it is over Delta Center executive director Lisa Tolbert says she plans to reapply and hopefully expand the program to include not only construction training but education in both nursing and technology. In the six months since she started Youth Build, Sharonda Burris has found something she wants to do long term and is excited about her future.

“My goal is to when I finish succeeding in this, hopefully I will get a construction job,” Burris said.

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