Before I begin, let me tell you where I come from. Well, it is from Sri Lanka, a beautiful larger island country settled in the northern Indian Ocean called “Sri Lanka Paradise” by tourists. (For its beauty and lifestyle) A country that still boasts of a rich cultural heritage. Sri Lanka is a diverse country, home to many religions, ethnicities and languages, where ancient traditions are still held onto and practiced.
(Meritan operates the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) a job training program for eligible seniors, ages 55 and older). This was, I must say my happiest/satisfying 2 years – Working with the nicest people I came across since arriving in America. I did not leave this location, but was moved out as Meritan does not allow more than one year in each organization. I had already overstayed. By this time I was a US citizen.
Now, I come to my story….. with ‘Youth Build’ (Genesis)
An interview at W.I.N I was greeted by Mr. Alan Gumbel, Program Manager of Y/B (Youth Build), and led to a conference room where Mr. Darrel Scott and he interviewed me. The position was for the front desk. After a couple of questions and answers were exchanged, Mr. Gumbel handed me a sheet of paper on which there were 2 job descriptions, one on each side, and asked me which on suited me best. It did not take me long to decide on the youth related job, and the interview continued…… I had now agreed on this assignment.
At the end of the session, whilst wrapping up I asked them “Is the job location here at WIN?” Now listen to this…, at this point I was told it was on Lamar Avenue. (Lamar Avenue was associated with violence/crime). I immediately declined the assignment, started sliding my papers back into my file and almost alighted from my chair, ready to make an exit. What a scene! The two gentlemen – their bewilderment at my performance was so evident as I changed over swiftly and was almost running away. I still wonder what flashed through their minds at this moment! Then, I was told that it was not such a bad location and also was not too far off, etc. I leisurely sat down and agreed to take it from there… to give it a try!
Now back at WIN, I was introduced to the staff by Mr. Alan Gumbel, then given the literature on ‘Youth Build’ to read and gain knowledge of this subject which was an “UFO” to me. I read with interest, made my notes and was no preparing to commence working with ‘Youth Build’. Still visualizing, what Y/B would be like.
This was the inaugural Youth Build Program, Memphis, Tennessee. The dream and vision of Mr. Alan Gumbel, Program Manager.
(Youth Build is a non-profit organization which provides education, counseling and job skills, to unemployed young American adults (between ages 18 and 24), generally high school drop-outs. There are 273 Youth Build programs in the United States)
Orientation was on May the 6th, 2014, and then after the students were tested the staff and the students went over to 2788 Lamar Avenue – the location for the Youth Build program. The feared location! (This was the old fire station).
On arrival we were dumfounded!! Yes that is the word! The question I asked myself “What? Am I going to work here?” The premises was so raggedy, dilapidated and was in one ball of a mess, all round – such a pitiful sight – painfully decaying in degrees in insolation due to disuse, crying out for help without a voice or tears. Inside the building, was like a dungeon – smelt bad too. Our eyes were sore at this sight. My head was throbbing fighting to make a decision. Some students including myself, wanted to turn back. But very soon, all wanted to make this ‘our place’.
Let me tell you what made me stay on…
When cleaning began (on day one), staff and students started on alternate cleaning assignments in the yard and inside the building. I went towards the bathrooms - this girl was scrubbing the hardened smut and blackened fungus on the floor with all her might. The eagerness to make things work for them, to turn this place into a habitable and usable unit was radiating from the manner in which she was laboring. I immediately fetched a pair of gloves and a mask and joined her in cleaning. Unfortunately, I had to move as the bleach started reacting on me negatively since I have allergies to most chemicals. I left the scene and went to the yard where students were clearing. In order to get someone to come in to help her, here what I saw just pierced my heart.
(I guess this was my turning point!) Some students were scraping off (a near excavation process) the tons of leaves that had rained down from the trees over the years and were stuck and so bonded to the ground, weather beaten, soaked by the rains, baked by the excessive heat of the summer, then frozen by the snow in the winter, now formed into a thick hard scab – very encrusted not so easy to remove… Among them were two students who had no gloves, no masks but they did not sit aside because they were minus gloves and masks, but were digging into this hard surface and scarping off the piles of dirt with their bare hands and filling the large black garbage bags! The determination of these fallen youth to rise again!! Oh what a heartbreaking scenario.
When it came to academics – this was more serious environment where absolute silence concentration and discipline was called for constantly. Mr. Alan Gumbel, a very dedicated instructor, was always looking for results in the range of an A, B or C levels and not less. One of my roles was to maintain fine discipline, particularly in the class room. I also helped the students who needed additional coaching in improving their English, hand writing, comprehension, etc.
We had the final celebration which was the last of a series of celebrations we had along with way, birthday parties for the 3 staff members, cook-out(s) BBQ, where we all fellowshipped and enjoyed meals prepared by ourselves. These were the fun filled events.
The graduation was held on February 27, 2015 on a grand scale, and I must say this was the most colorful and happiest day of the Youth Build program. Success ad accomplishment at last!
Now did I change? Oh yes! I was always a loving and caring person. But these qualities were not sufficient to deal with the Youth Build Cohort, who had many adjustments to be made and needed ruling with a firm hand. As time went by, I found within me another personality that I was not aware of that lived inside of me – a tough, but more understand and a tolerant person who could withstand and overcome/face challenges, etc. My former sensitive nature gradually started to decrease in degrees, inch by inch, bit by bit.
Now I noticed that I could face and move away obstacles, leap over hurdles, etc. Bless this Cohort and staff for helping me discover myself. So, I who almost ran away from the interview, I am still here (after 9months) with Youth Build now preparing to welcome the 2nd Y/B Cohort with a more mature outlook – unbelievable, but true!!