Life-changing. This is the phrase uttered repeatedly by every single individual involved in Project YouthBuild. Launched in the Gainesville area back in 2009, the Institute for Workforce Innovation is seeking to do just what its name suggests: build up the youth of our community.
Spearheaded by Jonathan Leslie, executive director and CEO, and Carrie Tam, chief operating officer, Project YouthBuild has a reputation that precedes itself. The highly competitive seven-month program offers at-risk youth aged 16 to 24 in Alachua County the opportunity to turn their lives around by developing educational, occupational and leadership skills — all through giving back
to the community.
“It was important for us to be able to create a program where our students would be able to give back to the very community they live in,” Leslie said. “Oftentimes, we find that our kids experience more of that positive impact from giving rather than receiving; this is where the inspiration for the Vision 20/20 Initiative came.”
The Vision 20/20 Initiative, a subsection of Project YouthBuild, seeks to have its student participants complete 20 service projects in 20 weeks for 20 different nonprofits in Greater Gainesville.
“Every week, you see a breakthrough for some of our students,” Tam explained. “They’re placed in an environment where they can directly help people in need and witness the effects of their service. We want our kids to walk out of here with the confidence that they are capable of succeeding in life and achieving their dreams.”
Success is surely an accurate word to describe the program, which boasts a 94 percent high school graduation rate.
“The kids in our program have a history of being told that they’ve failed,” Leslie said. “These are kids who have faced serious hardships in their lives and for one reason or another have gotten on the wrong path. At Project YouthBuild, we want to give our students the second chance they deserve; we want to teach them that they are not defined by their mistakes, but instead are defined by how they persevere in spite of these mistakes.”
Twenty-four-year-old Kerry Howard, a current member of the program, said Project YouthBuild has been the answer to his prayers.
“When I got the phone call that I had been accepted into the program, I knew right then that it was going to be the point in my life when everything was going to turn around,” Howard recalled. “Before Project YouthBuild, I was on the wrong path. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, and this is my chance to make something of myself.”
Thus far, Howard has been able to do just that. Having been elected president of the Youth Policy Council, Howard said his involvement with Project YouthBuild has piqued an interest within himself that he did not have an opportunity to explore previously.
“My involvement with the council has led me to become captivated with the politics of city government, which has come as a surprise to me,” Howard explained.
While he is still completing the program, Howard highlights the importance of the improvement he’s seen in himself since day one.
“I feel like that’s exactly what the staff works towards; they work to improve our lives, not necessarily to hand it to us but to give us the tools to improve our lives,” Howard said. “All it takes is for us to dedicate ourselves to it.”
Project YouthBuild prides itself on the loving family environment created by the staff, an environment which is carried on long after the program ends.
“We want YouthBuild to be that stepping stone to bigger and better things in life; our kids go on to accomplish some amazing things once they graduate from the program,” Tam said. “Our motto here is ‘Once in YouthBuild, always in YouthBuild’; we’ll always be here to support our students past or present, no matter what.”
Organizations helped so far by the Vision 20/20 Initiative:
- Alachua County Housing Authority
- Boys and Girls Club
- CareerSource of North Central Florida
- Children’s Home Society
- Community Redevelopment Agency
- Florida Organic Growers
- Grace Marketplace
- Girls Place
- Partnership for Strong Families
- Pleasant Street Neighborhood
- Ronald McDonald House
- Reichert House
- Trinity United Methodist Church
- UF Cares
- United Way
If you’d like to donate to Project YouthBuild or learn more about how you can help, contact Jonathan Leslie at [email protected]