In his early 20s with no high school diploma, Gino Voltere was languishing at North Boulevard Homes, a public housing complex south of downtown. He wanted to move away from the hopelessness and corner drug deals, a place where he, too, had been pinched for a drug-selling charge in 2005. The last place he thought he'd find a ticket out would be on the same streets — and from a drug dealer. The peddler saw Voltere and his brother looking aimless and handed them a flier he had found. It was an advertisement for the federally funded YouthBuild program, which offered a GED, construction classes and a career. The dealer apparently wanted a legitimate, steady job, too, but had looked into the program's details and found that he was too old to join.
"I took that as a sign," Voltere said. "A drug dealer actually telling me I should do it."
Voltere enrolled but almost quit multiple times. YouthBuild kept bringing him back until he succeeded.
"I used to walk around with my head down, but now I can walk around with my head up," he said. "I have a job."
Voltere became part of YouthBuild's first class of students when he joined early last year. The program turned his life around, and he hoped his brother might give it a chance.
But he may never get that opportunity. YouthBuild's funding has dwindled and, while it won't completely run out until next summer, the program cannot accept new applicants. Now local organizers are looking for a way to save a program that they say has rescued men like Voltere from the streets.
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YouthBuild, a 23-year-old national program, helps low-income 16- to 24-year-olds earn diplomas at 273 chapters spread across 45 states. There are offices in St. Petersburg and Lakeland. Most local offices are funded by U.S. Department of Labor grants.
YouthBuild programs last between six and 24 months. Participants learn job skills and receive stipends, as well as bonuses for benchmarks. They are placed in colleges or jobs and have caseworkers supporting them over several months.
In Tampa, the program opened last year, partnering with the Tampa Housing Authority. It was funded by a $1 million Department of Labor grant that allowed the program to reach 60 participants over two years of programs and one year of followup.
The Tampa program, however, based in a strip mall at 1803 N Howard Ave., helped 67. Of those, about 80 percent remain in their jobs or in colleges they were placed in, program manager John Arroyo said.
Participants came from throughout Tampa. Each class of qualifying applicants was put into a two-week "Mental Toughness" boot camp, where applicants were required to show up — sometimes at 6 a.m. — and perform mental and physical challenges. They ran about a mile to MacFarlane Park, up and down hills, and back. They were given hammering, sawing, ladder-climbing and other construction skill challenges. It was a weed-out process to see who wouldn't give up. Some quit. Others stopped showing. The field whittled down to about 20 in each of three consecutive classes.
On the last day of boot camp, participants were put to a test that included construction challenges and math problems. Voltere finished first in his class.
He was in. In the back of YouthBuild's office, he learned to install mock tile floors, working toilets, electrical switches, a ceiling fan, stoves, cabinets and water heaters. His colleagues and he put epoxy on a concrete floor, stuccoed walls and shingled a fake roof.
"I've worked with nonprofits for 12 years," YouthBuild case manager Kelly Huff said, "and this is the closest thing that does what it says."
But money problems at home prompted Voltere to drop out repeatedly and look for full-time jobs. Each time, the program director he called "Mr. John" found him riding his bike on nearby streets and talked him into returning.
"The last time I was going to leave, he stopped me and said, 'If that's what you want to do, do it,' " recalled Voltere. " 'But YouthBuild has something better.' "
He finished the program and started a maintenance job with the Tampa Housing Authority at North Boulevard Homes, where his six-month probationary status ended last week.
He changes light bulbs, installs light switches, repairs stairwells, peels linoleum, paints walls and buffs floors. He said he can't wait to invest in a retirement plan. He feels proud helping his mother with her bills.
"I feel like I'm the role model to all my friends," Voltere, 24, said.
Other YouthBuild graduates also have found jobs at the complex. Two others have worked as assistant superintendents on the 40-acre Encore building project downtown for more than a year, Arroyo said. Some are in college.
But for a reason Arroyo and other officials don't know, Tampa's YouthBuild program's funding wasn't renewed. A call to YouthBuild USA officials this week was not returned.
Right now, the Tampa program can only do case management and support program graduates. It cannot start new classes even though applicants repeatedly come by the West Tampa office daily looking for spots.
The program will completely cease June 30, 2012, unless it comes up with new funding sources.
The Tampa Housing Authority has pledged to try to keep the program alive in some form, and Arroyo is in discussions with the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance and construction companies, looking for help.
"Instead of society complaining about our kids," he said, "let's do something about it."
Wesner Toussant, 20, said he's proof the program works. Like Voltere, he is a maintenance worker at North Boulevard Homes.
Last week, both men cleaned and remodeled a vacant unit, scraping roach waste from cabinets, peeling and replacing damaged linoleum and buffing floors.
"I love the job," Toussant said. "I really didn't have anything before I went to the program."
In 2006, he had been shot and run over. For the past few years, he said, he has been looking for opportunities off the streets.
"I never wanted to sell drugs," he said.
Since being hired, he bought a car and said he also helps his mother with bills and bought his younger siblings their first birthday presents.
He had ridden his bicycle several miles from East Tampa to West Tampa daily during YouthBuild and had perfect attendance.
"I feel like this was such a blessing to me," Toussant said. "They should help keep the program going. I know it can help someone else."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.