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Hope Builds: Slowly and surely, a neighborhood changes -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Hope Builds: Slowly and surely, a neighborhood changes

Since Hope Builds began in 2010, three groups of young people have completed the course. In addition to learning construction skills, participants get
invaluable training in how to avoid gang life and build their own future. Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity Fresno County

A construction training program offers young people a path to a better future
By Bill Sanders


Terrance Bryant, son of Hope Builds supporter and former gang
member Duke Bryant, spends many of his afternoons doing
woodworking projects with Hope Builds.
Photo courtesy of
Habitat for Humanity Fresno County


Only a few months into a project to help stem the tide of young boys joining gangs in Fresno, Calif., Habitat for Humanity Fresno County’s Sabrina Kelley got a sense of just how brutal this fight would be.

Kenneth, 13, was one of the first recruits in a Habitat program called Hope Builds, designed to reach at-risk kids and their male role models — fathers, uncles and big brothers. The goal is to teach them construction skills, pay them for work and, most importantly, give the kids a better place to be than on the streets.

But Kenneth’s peers, members of a local gang, didn’t appreciate that he was already looking for a way out of the thug life.

Shortly after he started coming to Hope Builds, at the Mary Ella Brown Community Center in west Fresno, a group of kids — too young to drive — shot Kenneth from their bicycles. He was buried three days later.

Sabrina Kelley, whose background is in public health, was at a crossroads. Was Hope Builds simply too risky?

‘They know they have a place’

The Mary Ella Brown Community Center is at the heart of this Fresno community, which is part of Habitat for Humanity’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. In these NRI neighborhoods, Habitat partners with homeowners, community activists, local authorities and school systems not only to build, rehab and repair houses, but also to help foster after-school programs, preserve green space — whatever it takes to help change a troubled or neglected area into a thriving community.

The philosophy is clear: For new Habitat homeowners to succeed, the entire community must be transformed, and every community is unique.

Before anybody could take pride in this part of southwest Fresno, something had to be done about the gang problem.

“We’ve seen a change in the personality of the boys,” Kelley said. “When they first started coming, they were wearing their gang colors. Now they wear their happy yellow Hope Builds shirt.

“They get paid for doing work, and they know they have a place to come.”

A galvanizing effect

Ultimately, Kenneth’s shooting only fueled Kelley’s determination that Habitat for Humanity could help make this neighborhood safer and more livable.

“This boy’s shooting really affected the community,” she said. “I think it galvanized a lot of our partners in this project, too.”

Hope Builds started in November 2010. The Fresno affiliate was just starting its Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative project, and the local community center became one of its first partners — and its hub.

“We were seeing so many young boys who should have been in school wandering the streets, tagging buildings and homes,” Kelley said. “A lot of them were independent-study students who had been kicked out of traditional schools due to behavioral problems — or for wearing gang colors.”

Kelley already knew what business leaders and law-abiding residents had to say about community development. But what would these troubled kids say?

All it took to find out, she said, was free pizza and soda.

“We organized a round-table discussion with pizza and soda and invited them to come tell us what was on their mind,” Kelley said.

Even that was an eye-opener.

“The first time, when they saw pizza coming to the community center, a bunch were collaborating to figure out how they could steal it,” Kelley said. “They didn’t need to steal it — it was for them.”

Earning trust on both sides was crucial to the success of Hope Builds.

“We had to trust they wouldn’t turn on us,” Kelley said. “And we just kept showing up until they figured it out. We were one their side, and we were not going anywhere.”

Next: ‘Creating mayhem was something to do’
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