As she pulls glue off a metal scraper while laying tiles in a second-floor bedroom of a Camden public housing unit, 17-year-old Briana Russ brushes her bangs to the side with her forearm.
"I like painting, but this is difficult," Russ says, shaking glue off her fingers.
The Camden teen is in the middle of her construction training through YouthBuild, an alternative education program for high school dropouts ages 16 to 24 that provides classroom instruction and occupational-skills training. The federal program, which is managed locally by the Housing Authority of Camden City, started in 1992.
The idea was to "rebuild a young person while rebuilding the community," Camden YouthBuild coordinator Diane Davis said.
But with the recession's negative effect on the housing market, there wasn't much construction work for YouthBuild students, especially in Camden. So this year, the program was expanded so students can receive a certificate in another vocation, such as nursing assistant, sterile processing of medical equipment, or communications technology.
Russ, who is working toward a communications-technology certificate, plans to go on to Camden County College to pursue a career in the medical field.
The construction certificate won't be wasted, though.
"Once I get my own place, I can fix it up myself," she says proudly as she continues to tile the bedroom floor at Branch Village.
Davis said that was the type of resilience that program coordinators worked to develop: giving at-risk young people the confidence and hope to succeed in life.
When tenants move out of the old barracklike units on Ferry Avenue in Camden's Centerville section, the Housing Authority sends in YouthBuild teams to refurbish the apartments' interiors. Of 245 Branch Village units, nine are vacant, site manager Malcom Isler said.
However, the waiting list for just Branch Village is more than 800 people; each public housing site has its own waiting list, authority attorney Lisa Richardson said.
Each year, close to 60 YouthBuild students take classes at the program's local headquarters, 1700 Federal St., to finish their high school diploma or attain a GED.
Then in the afternoons, they do construction - drywall hanging, painting, small electronic work - or make progress on their other vocational certification. Their quarterly performance stipend can be as high as $500, depending on grades and overall work, in addition to the hourly construction pay, usually about $10 an hour, Davis said.
Some students stay the full year; others move on when they finish their high school work.
Each work site has a crew chief - a YouthBuild student who has excelled in the classroom and developed strong leadership skills.
Funding for local YouthBuilds comes mostly through grants. The federal Department of Labor has administered YouthBuild grants since 2007, ranging from $700,000 to $1.1 million each.
Camden YouthBuild received a $1.1 million three-year grant in 2009 and is applying in a new round of national grants totaling $75 million to be announced in late summer. In addition, the Camden site has received funds from the New Jersey Office of Attorney General and the Juvenile Justice Commission.
Because many of the participants have criminal records and come from dysfunctional households, four case managers, contracted as educational consultants, work with them daily on leadership and other skills, Davis said.
"Most youths here have barriers for success," she explained.
For many, YouthBuild has been a "blessing," said Dennis Davis, 24, a participant taking the sterile-processing classes in hopes of working in health care.
The special certifications available to Camden YouthBuild students were strategically chosen, Diane Davis said, because of the various hospitals in the region and Comcast's large footprint.
Landing a job at Cooper Hospital would be ideal for the Camden native, said Dennis Davis (who is not related to Diane), but he said he would go anywhere that hires him. He joined YouthBuild after working various dead-end fast-food jobs.
"YouthBuild provided me with a nice environment. It's a team effort, like a family," the crew chief said as he checked in on three youths, including Russ, working in a two-bedroom unit. "No one is better than anyone."
After a Housing Authority employee taught Russ how to cut tile, Dennis Davis asked to learn, too.
"I can show you," Russ said, looking up.
Contact Claudia Vargas
at 267-815-1953, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on philly.com.