Project REBUILD repairs homes, lives of young people in the Canton region

Trust is a key component in changing the life of someone who has experienced tough times, says Joanna James, executive director at YouthBuild Canton/Project REBUILD Inc.

Through YouthBuild USA’s Green Initiatives Program, out-of-work and out-of-school young adults learn construction and job skills while earning their high school diplomas or equivalent degrees. These are students who have dropped out of high school and are often living at or below the poverty level. Some have even found themselves in legal trouble.

“When they come into the program, they don’t know us,” James says. “And if they don’t know us, they don’t trust us. And if they don’t trust us, then they’re not going to listen to anything we have to say. They don’t know that we have their best interests at heart. So much of what we do as a staff is to focus on establishing and building that relationship.”

Since 2010, Saint-Gobain has supported YouthBuild USA’s sustainable building and job training program for disadvantaged youth, as well as green home renovation projects in four communities where the company has business concentrations, including Canton.

“Construction training is the vehicle we use to teach the workforce development skills,” James says. “They are doing hands-on construction training rehabbing low- to moderate-income housing throughout our community.”

On April 27, representatives of Saint-Gobain and YouthBuild Canton teamed up for a day of service dedicated to continuing on a green home renovation project they’ve been working on together since the summer of 2015.

“This project is my baby,” says Dina Silver Pokedoff, senior manager of branding and communication at Saint-Gobain. “I get a chance to go out in the field and bring groups of employees for volunteer days. We work together with all the key stakeholders in the project whether it be the community development corporation, the students, our experts or our business people. We see this as doing well by doing good. It’s both philanthropic-driven, but also business-driven.”

A fresh start

Saint-Gobain has indeed jumped into the project with everything it can offer, and a willingness to get dirty along the way.

“We see this as more than just giving a check and walking away,” Pokedoff says. “We really get our hands dirty and get in there. We are in essence training the next generation of green leaders, people who will be leaders in the field of sustainability. We firmly believe this is about rebuilding the middle class. These young adults get a second chance. They get to rebuild their lives and they can then go on one day to buy a home and maybe own a home that has our products on it.”

Project REBUILD has been in Canton since 1999 and became a YouthBuild affiliate in 2003. It’s a 9-month program for young people ages 16 to 24, James says.

“We find a lot of these young people are those kinesthetic learners who have to do things in order to learn,” James says. “They learn much better when they’re put in a position to do versus someone telling them about it or showing them.”

When students experience a victory, even if it’s a small one, that moment is celebrated.

“They may not have had success in the past,” James says. “They may have had failure and now they’re afraid of failure. For us, it’s finding all of those small little nuggets of success that we can celebrate with them. We definitely see the transformation. Sometimes, you don’t see it immediately.

“But one of my favorite parts of this job is that young person who comes back after they’ve been out of the program for a year and they’ve gotten a new job or a new car and they want to share their news with you. You become one of those people they want to share successes with, even after the program.”

The satisfaction for those volunteers, employees and professionals who help these students can be pretty powerful.

“What’s so fun about a construction project is that you don’t always have to have a ton of experience to be able to make a difference,” Pokedoff says. “Whether our employees are out in the field with students doing demolition work, doing cleanup or planting trees or even hanging drywall or installing insulation. Whatever the project is, it’s a really great opportunity for our employees to work side by side with these young adults.”

James says it’s all about providing opportunities for growth.

“I always envision what we do is trying to fill their backpack with all these things they can take out into the workplace,” James says. “The partnership with Saint-Gobain is allowing us to add green-building techniques. The fact that they are going to be able to work on a LEED-certified project, it’s just more of these tools that they can put in their backpack as they go off and meet potential employers.”

How to reach: Project REBUILD Inc., (330) 588-3205 or www.projectrebuild.org; Saint-Gobain, (610) 893-6000 or www.saint-gobain-northamerica.com