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County Steps Up: Backs Up YouthBuild

Commissioners Dig Into Reserves

Trujillo & Di Piero

September 15, 2003


By Bill Whaley

As if intent on setting an example for the community, the Taos County Commissioners voted to dig into their general fund reserves and build a $45,000 bridge to keep the YouthBuild program alive at their meeting on Sept. 3. The night before the commissioners made the decision, Sept. 2, community members met for the third time in a series of public meetings called "Organizing for Change." The meetings, sponsored by the Taos County Chamber of Commerce, Community Against Violence, Town of Taos, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Taos Community Foundation, are a response to the murderous events of Fiesta weekend, which resulted in the deaths of four young Taosenos this summer. Participants in "Organizing for Change" have discussed ideas and potential solutions in an effort to identify the problems of Taos youth. Now, commissioners are translating ideas into action by continuing to support YouthBuild.

YouthBuild serves kids-at-risk, many of whom are mandated by the courts to join the program. There they learn construction skills and take courses aimed at getting General Education Diplomas (GEDs). Former director Bruce Armstrong characterized the challenges of the program at an earlier community meeting when he said that some seven YouthBuild members have died of violent causes. Two YouthBuild members, including Lorenzo Maestas, the last victim of the deadly Fiesta weekend, were active members of the program when they died, according to YouthBuild coordinator and case manager Tom Trujillo.

Approximately 200 Taos youths, called trainees, have passed through the program, and 67 have graduated. Judge Peggy Nelson frequently assigns young offenders between the ages of 16 and 18 to YouthBuild. Armstrong, Trujillo, and coordinator Daniela Di Piero describe the program as a family, and, in some cases, a last chance for kids who have been neglected at home, dropped out of school because of impersonal treatment, or tempted to walk down the wrong paths by their peers. Trainees arrive with problems related to drugs, alcohol, and gang influences. Some have gone on to UNM or gotten jobs in the construction industry.

During the Sept. 3 meeting, the new county finance director, Carol Thompson-White, told commissioners that they were following appropriate guidelines in funding YouthBuild. According to Thompson-White, the county’s current contribution for the program did not violate the "anti-donation clause," which prohibits local or state agencies from giving money to private entities. YouthBuild, historically funded by HUD, but sponsored by the county, qualifies as a county program. Thompson-White also said that a debt of $40,000 from the last fiscal year for YouthBuild had been properly accounted for as a reimbursement, because it can be considered part of the county’s 10 percent management fee for the previous HUD grant of more than $400,000.

The new appropriation of $45,000 will be used initially to pay rent and utilities and for staff salaries to coordinators Di Piero and Trujillo, while they wait to find out if they will receive notification of the $450,000 HUD grant in October. The coordinators are using the time to reorganize and turn the program into a self-sustaining enterprise. The seventh training cycle for the YouthBuild program, which began in 1997, is scheduled to start in early winter of 2004. Trainees are generally paid above minimum wage to participate in the program. Di Piero and Trujillo are hoping to raise money and volunteers to help improve and sustain YouthBuild.

The commissioners and the county manager, Sam Pacheco, unanimously spoke in favor of YouthBuild. Commissioner Gabe Romero told the two coordinators that "I’ve walked in your shoes," referring to his experience with YouthBuild, which he helped develop back in 1997 along with Armstrong and former Community Development Director Carlos Miera. Commissioner Virgil Martinez referred to the program as a "good cause." Below, Di Piero and Trujillo discuss their experiences and an opportunity for community members who want to make a difference in the lives of kids at risk.

Tom Trujillo
Tom, whose father works for Governor Bill Richardson in a state health program, acts as case worker for the trainees. He has also been a GED instructor, construction trainer, and assisted with the finances. The Taos native, a big burly guy with a jutting chin, assists the young people with their ups and downs, advocates at teen court, intervenes in crisis situations, gets them to probation hearings and meetings, makes family visits, and deals with a variety of ills–drugs, alcohol, and other problems. He says he responds to trainees when they phone him at two or three a.m.

"They earn my trust," Tom says, "and I earn theirs." Trainees say they have left school for a variety of reasons, says Tom. "They don’t get the attention; they are labeled as trouble-makers, or told they are dumb and stupid." He also says that Dr. Marc Space, superintendent of schools, has been a positive change. He’s been "supportive," "interviews the kids before they leave school," and "makes a personal connection." According to Trujillo, the kids experience a "downfall, because the probation system and the schools are too standardized." Tom says, "A one-size-fits-all approach to individual kids doesn’t work."

He says the program needs more interaction "with the community as a whole." Volunteers could play an important role in tutoring, counseling, and teaching construction skills. The program currently needs a construction trainer to lead the projects. YouthBuild has worked with Habitat for Humanity, rebuilt walls at the Stables Gallery, helped with the Red Willow Learning Center at Taos Pueblo, and plastered the Kit Carson Park bandstand for the Solar Music Festival. When the trainees accomplish something "you can see the pride," says Tom. "They will talk about how they built a wall for days, no matter how small. When they pass a portion of the GED test, they glow."

Currently, YouthBuild is negotiating with the Town of Taos to lease or purchase lots at the Chamisa Verde low-income housing project to build houses from the ground up. Then they want to sell the houses to create a self-sustaining financial environment that will keep the program alive–regardless of HUD grants or county support. Earlier this year, the legislature allocated $65,000 to the program for the purposes mentioned by Trujillo.

Recently, trainees went to Brazil, where they worked on a house under true third-world construction conditions, mixing cement by hand and hauling it up hillsides in buckets. "And you should have seen their faces when they jumped in the ocean for the first time," said Tom. "Some of these kids have never been out of Taos County before." The experience for these kids was "huge," he said.

Tom noted that YouthBuild trainees must be 16 and said there is a lack of activities available in the community for younger kids–between the ages of 10 and 16. These are the kids who are slipping into the cracks and becoming vulnerable to peers who influence their choices to become gang members. Tom says these kids need access to sports, after-school activities, and academic tutoring to keep them out of trouble during the elementary and middle school years. Trujillo said the community lacks sports and tutoring facilities for kids who find that "school is not working. They get lost in the crowd at school," he said. Tom explained that current team sports, Little League or school basketball, for instance, create an atmosphere that is too competitive for kids who lack confidence.

YouthBuild succeeds, partially, because of its focus on the small numbers: each cycle begins with 14 to 17 kids and can last for six months up to two years. The small numbers allow tutors and trainers to concentrate on individuals. Still, the program needs more tutors for individual kids, whether they are studying for the GED, trying to learn construction skills, or need counseling. Trujillo said YouthBuild averages one female for every seven males. "We need to know how to retain females. Fifty percent of them aren’t interested in construction," he said.

Throughout the conversation, Tom emphasized how kids at risk have low self-esteem and lack self-confidence, which makes them vulnerable to recruitment by gangs. What appears to be "toughness" in gang kids, says Tom, is really "a wall of fear. They develop toughness to survive because they’ve been hurt intellectually and emotionally."

Daniela Di Piero
A Brown University graduate with a Master’s Degree in Education, 25-year-old Daniela Di Piero learned something about gangs when she lived in Boston’s tough African-American neighborhood, Roxbury. There, she participated in a Boston program aimed at educating prison inmates. According to surveys, the higher the education level, the lower the rate of recidivism. More diplomas and degrees, less time in the joint. Daniela left Roxbury and came to Taos, where Tom Trujillo calls her a great addition to the YouthBuild program.

Asked about the "gangster" element, Daniela says, "Individually they want out. But it’s part of the economy." Di Piero says she has "never felt threatened" by trainees. Like Trujillo, she has learned how to encourage trainee trust while maintaining discipline.

Di Piero says that when trainees arrive at the program, "almost every single one is addicted to drugs, alcohol, is a member of a gang, or has experienced violence." Some trainees say, "Every person I know is like that," according to Daniela. She says "these kids have no mechanism to get out." Counselors spend time discussing "what it takes for them to stop using drugs" or alcohol and how to live healthy lives. If kids smoke crack or get screwed up on drugs, they get thrown out of the program, according to Di Piero.

Asked about the schools, she says, "Students will say teachers did make an impact. But, on the whole, the impression is negative." Daniela says the trainees, between the ages of 16 and 18, very often arrive at YouthBuild with third grade level reading and writing skills and first or second grade math skills. They frequently make progress, passing through two or three grade levels immediately. At YouthBuild, trainees are told that they can "take charge of their own educations." Although trainees have difficulty concentrating in the classroom–especially at the beginning–they all want to pass their GEDs, says Daniela. She teaches kids how to express themselves in journals through writing or drawing pictures. As they gain confidence and skill, trainees begin writing more frequently. She referred to the progress made by Lorenzo Maestas, a Fiesta weekend homicide victim. Daniela says Lorenzo began writing in his journal every day for hours during the trip to Brazil. She also referred to Lorenzo’s skill as an artist. "He was so proud, so positive," she said. "He was brilliant on the construction site."

Part of the YouthBuild program includes confidence building at the Santa Fe Mountain Center. Seemingly tough gang leaders reveal their low skills, low esteem, and the results of drug addiction when confronted with the challenges of rock climbing. The focus on learning skills for climbing teaches the trainees about group dynamics and how to work with each other, according to Di Piero.

Di Piero says the program (and Taos) needs a local GED testing center so that trainees don’t have to travel out of town for exams. YouthBuild specifically needs at least five more computers to augment its tutoring center. There is no staffed computer-tutoring center in Taos where students can work on their papers or studies during off hours. Daniela says YouthBuild hopes to offer new opportunities–renovating houses or doing landscape projects–to complement the construction program. The staff also needs money for professional development. Daniela says YouthBuild is trying to become a new model for a public-private partnership so that Taos youth will have positive alternatives to current systems that have failed kids at risk.

If you want to help, phone Daniela or Tom at 737-6450 or 776-8684. Visit the YouthBuild offices at 205 Cruz Alta Road. For a look at the real thing, see a film of the YouthBuild trip to Brazil, a documentary, produced by the trainees and Scott Slack of the Taos Media Center, on Sat. Oct. 25, 7 p.m., at the San Geronimo Lodge.