To take a drive down S.W. 17th Street in Oklahoma City is to tour a modern day Bailey Park from Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." The street is lined with small, cookie-cut buildings; children play basketball, friends talk and walk, and workers greet each other as they pass.
What goes on at the address of 3301, in particular, truly defines what it is to build a wonderful life.
This is the location of one of four YouthBuild programs in the state of Oklahoma.
YouthBuild is designed to address core issues facing low-income communities, such as housing, education, employment, crime prevention and leadership development.
Participants aged 16-24 work toward either their GED or high school diploma while also learning and studying construction skills through the Oklahoma City Housing Authority.
"Our students work on about 200 units each year," said Katrina Henderson, AmeriCorps VISTA representative. "All of our projects are community related, such as working for a community organization or helping to build low-income or transitional housing."
Interest in the program has steadily increased since it started four years ago. Applicants must first undergo a two-week boot camp called Mental Toughness, in which they participate in leadership and teamwork activities and educational testing.
The goal is to weed out anyone unwilling to work cooperatively and those not fully invested in positively affecting their life.
"Mental Toughness is really an intensive process," said Sara Lacy-Pippins, program manager for YouthBuild. "This last time we started out with 44 students on our roster. By the second week, we were down to 20, and we ended up only taking eight."
Participants hit the ground running once they're admitted, attending class on a schedule much like that of a normal school. Everyone is divided into two groups, alternating weeks between educational classes and on-site and classroom construction training.
Fridays are set aside for leadership development and community service, two key factors of the YouthBuild curriculum.
"The leadership component is really integrated throughout the whole program. It's the third or fourth chance for some of these kids, and they're hungry for success," Lacy-Pippins said.
Mauro Castillo, 23, is the epitome of a student driven by the memory of his past.
An Oklahoma City native, Castillo was involved in gangs and had been on his own since his mother died when he was 13. After hearing about the program through a friend, he decided to make the commitment to get his GED.
"I love everything about it. I just wanted to get my education and get out of here, but now I really don't want to leave," he said.
Castillo describes himself as a born leader, but has learned to improve those skills through the program's values.
"I think I can do anything I want to do. It doesn't matter where I came from or what I've done, as long as I know that nothing's going to stop me from achieving my goals," he said.
YouthBuild also helps students explore potential careers through a mentoring program, now in its infancy. Mentors are expected to provide job advice and, most importantly, to be strong and dependable role models. "Emily Hopkins