As Schenectady house grows, so do its builders

YouthBuild students learn job skills, life skills while constructing Land Bank home
Jennifer Lawrence, executive director of the Social Enterprise and Training Center.
Jennifer Lawrence, executive director of the Social Enterprise and Training Center.

The YouthBuild Schenectady program usually splits its students between classroom and worksite.

But on Monday it doubled up on the construction crew, trying to speed installation of a windproof outer layer on the house they’re building on Prospect Street.

The students wouldn’t beat the cold front that settled over the area Monday — the temperature dropped 6 degrees in one hour as they sprayed foam insulation into cracks and crevices — but they will have it enclosed soon enough that they can work inside for the winter. 

“It won’t be comfy but it will be away from the elements,” said Jennifer Lawrence, executive director of the Social Enterprise and Training Center, which runs the Schenectady program of YouthBuild USA. The 35-year-old organization serves about 10,000 young adults annually at 260 locations nationwide, teaching them job skills to earn a living and life skills with which to earn a job.

Lawrence said the foundation was poured in August and the finished house should be completed in late March or early April 2018. In between, dozens of students in their late teens and early 20s will have worked on-site in a rotation that also includes retail, restaurant and hospitality job experiences.

The construction work is an important part of the YouthBuild experience. It requires teamwork and individual precision, physical effort and mental commitment from people who, by their own assessment, are not on track for career success after dropping out of school.

It’s also a curriculum that creates something solid and lasting.

“The students can drive by and say, ‘When I was trying to change my life this is what I built. There’s a family living there,’” Lawrence said. “When they leave us, it really helps build their resume.”

The nearly 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom, three-bathroom two-story house is being built at 99-101 Prospect St., a double lot where the Capital Region Land Bank demolished derelict tax-foreclosed houses in 2015 and 2016. 


It is the first from-scratch construction project for YouthBuild Schenectady, which has participated in more than 30 renovations, most recently at 843 Emmett St. The new house project proved harder to get started than the renovations but has been easier to keep moving, Lawrence said, because there are none of the surprises that can lurk in decades-old walls.

A key partner on the project is the Land Bank, which owns the lot. It is paying $76,625 of the estimated $125,000 to $140,000 cost of materials and will sell the finished house to an income-qualified buyer.

Another key partner is building materials manufacturer Saint-Gobain, which since 2010 has provided YouthBuild USA with materials to make its projects energy-efficient and trained students on how to install them.

For the Prospect Street house, the Saint-Gobain Corporation Foundation is providing insulation and sheathing that will help seal in heat and is paying for other materials to help reduce the amount of energy the house consumes.

It is the first new construction project the foundation and YouthBuild USA have collaborated on. 


The plan, Lawrence said, is to make 99-101 Prospect St. a net-zero house — generating more electricity than it consumes. That will depend whether a donor can be found for solar equipment to generate electricity and heat up water. If there is no donor, the structure will merely be a highly efficient house.

The goal is a platinum LEED rating, the highest awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. (The Emmett Street project, which the Saint-Gobain foundation also assisted, earned a gold LEED rating, second-highest.)

Also helping with the project is Better Neighborhoods Inc., which is planning a construction project of its own across the street.

The students have been trained in skills and safety, but there are still some tasks they cannot do, Lawrence said, including roofing and complicated systems delivering heat, electricity and water.

Appolo Heating, Arket Electric and Dave’s Plumbing and Heating will do the skilled work, and also give pointers to students shadowing along.

“I appreciate that,” Lawrence said. “It’s extra time that they’re not getting paid for.”

Three of the students working on the new house Monday said they were excited to be part of the project, because of what it is and what it will mean for them in the future.

“I never got a chance to graduate,” said Nyasia Bonds, 22, a lifelong Schenectady resident and mother of two young boys. YouthBuild, she said, will give her a chance to earn a high school equivalency diploma and eventually go to college.

In the meantime, she likes doing construction work and likes what she’s accomplishing with it: “It’s giving back to our community,” she said.

Ismael Roman, 18, of Amsterdam, and Joe Holligan, 18, of Schenectady, are among the many students who Lawrence said gravitate toward YouthBuild: high school dropouts who learn better by doing than by sitting in a classroom. 

“The situation I was in … high school really wasn’t for me. I was getting in fights,” Roman said. YouthBuild is steering him back toward an equivalency diploma.

“I heard about them, I heard about what they do,” he said. “It changed the way I thought.”

He’d like to continue building things after YouthBuild, rather than going to college or moving to another work field. “The construction field is definitely what I want to do.”

Holligan sees construction as a stepping stone on a path to college.

“When I dropped out of high school I was just thinking of making money,” he recalled. “I got tired of making $10.50 an hour at a job I didn’t like.”

Holligan’s father and grandfather introduced him to construction work early on, and he built his own treehouse at 13. There’s not much on the Prospect Street project that he hasn’t enjoyed. 

“Maybe heights a little bit,” he allowed.

Many YouthBuild participants start out lacking not just job skills but the basic life skills they need to hold jobs, such as arriving on time with a good attitude. 

Many would-be participants seem to understand this and want to change it: Lawrence said the SEAT Center gets many more applicants than it can accommodate for each YouthBuild session. Some are filtered out during the life-skills and mental preparation that starts before the actual job training starts. Others go through it a few times before they’re ready to start job training.

The young men and women may have made bad choices that led them to their current status, or just not enough good choices, but with the exception of serious criminal convictions, this won’t disqualify them from participating in YouthBuild.

“We don’t judge your past,” Lawrence said.

Categories: -News-, Business, Schenectady County

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