Twenty-eight young people started rehabilitating homes and building their leadership skills yesterday as part of an effort to revive the troubled, 72-square-block Sandtown-Winchester area of West Baltimore.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stopped by yesterday for the ceremonial opening of YouthBuild Sandtown's first two projects, rowhouse renovations in the 700 block of Cumberland St.
"This project shows that what others see as signs of despair, we see as signs of hope," the mayor said.
YouthBuild Sandtown is a two-year project funded by a $995,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In addition to learning construction skills, the 28 youths selected for the program receive 18 months of classroom training in math, history, reading, writing and computer skills.
"This is not just a construction program; it builds communities one building at a time and builds lives one life at a time," Elijah Ethridge, the program's executive director, told a crowd of about 200 Sandtowners.
One YouthBuild worker, Lamont Johnson, 24, said the program will make the dream of college a reality for him.
"I joined because I liked what they were saying about helping the community while I help myself," said the Sandtown resident, who just returned from a visit to North Carolina A & T State University, where he plans to study engineering.
The program provides graduates $4,000 in education benefits as well as a $125 weekly stipend, Mr. Ethridge said.
Mr. Johnson and about a quarter of his YouthBuild classmates are high school graduates. The rest of the class will have a high school diploma or a General Educational Development diploma by the end of the 18 months, said Mr. Ethridge.
Training in carpentry, plumbing and other building trades skills is provided by the Living Classrooms Foundation, which conducts a two-week intensive course. On completion, each student is given a tool kit.
Those involved with the program praised its family-like atmosphere. Students and instructors call each other "brother" and "sister." No one seems happier with YouthBuild than Leatrice Whitehead, 31. The 25-year Sandtown resident, who has pledged to contribute 300 hours of sweat equity to the project, plans to move into the first completed Cumberland Street rowhouse in July with her two daughters.
"It's wonderful what these young people are doing for me and for the community," she said.