Building new lives

This alternative high school runs a tight ship.


Five minutes after an 8:30 a.m. photo shoot celebrating Portland YouthBuilders’ completion of an affordable home at Southeast 104th Avenue and Ellis Street, the student builders are already in vans heading back to school and work.


Kristine Chapman, a recent graduate of Portland State, pulls her car up to the forest-green house a few minutes after the last camera shutter blinks and hops up the front steps, narrowly avoiding the sprinkler which soaks her shadow.


The interior of the 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house is light and bright, and once inside Chapman admires the handiwork of the windowsills. Passing a narrow strip of plastic protecting the white carpet from muddy feet, she passes a windowed alcove that looks out towards the side yard where a healthy dogwood is growing.


The foundation of this house goes far beyond wood and concrete, drawing on the strength of young people determined to improve their lives. Portland YouthBuilders enrolls low-income students aged 17-24 who have dropped out of school and offers a curriculum that helps them earn a GED or high school diploma while learning leadership skills and a trade – construction or computer technology.


Whether it is restoring computers so that low-income families can afford to buy one or building an affordable home, the work students do at YouthBuilders is geared toward serving the community.

Starting out at PYB as a practicum student, and later as a part-time employee, Chapman assisted with development, grant-writing, and the start-up of a new mentor program.  Since June, her hours and responsibilities have increased and she is now managing publicly funded contracts.  “She is in a position of ensuring that our programs are aligned with funders requirements,” said Jill Walters, executive director of PYB.  “Kristine performs a vital function for us.”

On average, 100 students are admitted to the school each year. Small class sizes, individualized support and an emphasis on community involvement helps many of the students succeed.


“Work on the house is cool because you meet the families moving into them,” said Holly Walker, a 22-year-old YouthBuilders student who will graduate in a week. “I was there from the foundation up. In the future I want to buy one of the houses that YouthBuilders builds.”


Walker wanted to be an auto mechanic when she first joined the program, but said she is now thinking of pursuing social work or becoming a teacher.

“I learned that in order to make a difference I’ll need to take some steps rather than sitting back and watching the problems.”


Having earned an $1800 AmeriCorps education award through YouthBuilders, Walker is planning to take classes at Portland Community College, and then continue on at a four-year college, possibly Portland State.


“Before I went here I didn’t have a future,” she said. “I was going to end up going to prison.”


Kristine Chapman, who has been working with YouthBuilders for more than a year, grew up in Corvallis, a college town she refers to as “‘Pleasantville’ compared to Portland” and home of Oregon State University. “If you didn’t get good grades you weren’t cool,” she said. “A lot of my teachers were my dad’s teachers.”


Chapman said she never saw homeless people where she grew up. At PSU, she was drawn to student groups and classes that brought her into close proximity with Portland residents experiencing the most need. As co-chair of the Community Development Student Group, Chapman organized warm clothing drives that raised over 300 pounds of clothing for Portland Rescue Mission and Central City Concern.


Chapman said it’s hard to expect people to respond to community needs if their lives are largely insulated from the effects of poverty. Her senior capstone class, homelessness and poverty developed a photography exhibit and a postcard awareness campaign that attempted to help people relate on a personal level.


The visual account of the experience of homeless families was presented to Multnomah county officials during the budget-making session in May. Gretchen Kafoury, the teacher of the capstone, said that although it’s difficult to know the campaign’s impact on funding, “we got a million dollars out of the county budget with the help of Serena Cruz.”


Chapman’s first visit to YouthBuilders was inspired by a Community Development class case-study assignment. Two YouthBuilders students gave her a tour of a house they were building in Sellwood. Their stories about their leadership experience at Portland YouthBuilders and their professionalism and maturity made a strong impression. From that point on, “I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

Chapman appreciates working in Lents, a lower-income neighborhood in outer Southeast, and doesn’t regret being exposed to the harsh realities. In college, poverty is often expressed in terms of statistics, she said, but working at YouthBuilders every day has changed that. “They became people, individuals.”


“I want to make government more responsible,” Chapman said. “I want to get funding for programs that need funding.”


However, Chapman would like to see the public schools improve so that programs such as Portland YouthBuilders will not be necessary. “Ideally public schools would have more advocates,” she said. “I don’t think they do. I think they’ve given up. I want to be part of the discussion. I want to be at the table with people making decisions.”


Chapman’s career aspirations – political lobbying, advocacy and policy analysis – may very well bring her to the decision making table.


Until then, she seems satisfied with observing the growth in students that YouthBuilders encourages.


“It’s extremely rewarding to see a change in a student’s life,” Chapman said. “When they go out in the world, hopefully they will affect everyone in their life.”