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Hope Builds: Slowly and surely, a neighborhood changes (part 2) -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Hope Builds: Slowly and surely, a neighborhood changes (part 2)

‘Creating mayhem was something to do’


Sabrina Kelley (right), neighborhood revitalization coordinator at
Habitat Fresno County, works on a painting project with Marseth
Lang (far left) and Donquise McCoy (white shirt). Photo courtesy
of Habitat for Humanity Fresno County


Joseph Bryant receives his Hope Builds graduation certificate
from Deon Deloney, a former gang member who has become a
trusted volunteer at the construction training program.
courtesy of Habitat for Humanity Fresno County


Southwest Fresno has been designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert, with 51 percent of the people there having low incomes and little access to fresh food.

“These kids would eat at school, if they went, and at the community center,” Kelley said. “That was all the food they were getting.”

To ensure that the young people in the Hope Builds program eat, Habitat has added a line item in its NRI budget for food at the community center.

Eventually, once the kids were fed and began to trust the staff at Hope Builds, they started talking. They opened up about having no hope, having nothing to do, nothing to look forward to.

“Creating mayhem was something to do,” Kelley said.

Now, on any given day, 40 to 45 kids come to the community center. Fourteen are in the Hope Builds program, where they and their adult mentors learn carpentry skills. The kids are given a small weekly stipend for attending the work sessions and for mentoring younger kids at the center. They earn additional money by selling some of the items they make at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, a discount home improvement shop. And they work in fruit and vegetable gardens around the community center.

“We give them marketing classes and inspire them to think about what they can make,” Kelley said. “They then sell their garden art, like birdhouses or painted rocks. And we plan on putting a fruit stand in at a corner that right now is as drug-infested a place as there is and see if we can’t turn that corner around.”

Youth economic development is a major factor in the future impact of Hope Builds, Kelley said. Current funding allows for only 14 of the center’s 45 kids to be enrolled in the program.

Learning from the past

Duke Bryant, a self-professed former gang member who had serious brushes with violence, now is father to three teenage sons and a daughter. His kids all spend time at the community center and are part of the Hope Builds program.

“It has made them think about things they want to do in the future,” Bryant said. “They come home and talk about things they learned, and bring home the things they built. It gives them a sense of accomplishment.

“It’s real important to me that my boys don’t have associations with the gangs, like I did. I want to keep them out of what I went through. I tell them that being a follower is not good. People like me are in the situation we are in because of decisions we made a long time ago. I want my kids to hear me say that over and over.”

Laneesha Senegal is director of Helping Others to Pursue Excellence — known as HOPE — a Fresno nonprofit organization with a similar mission of guiding young people to a better path that is a partner of Habitat and Hope Builds. She said selling the Hope Builds concept to the older generation of gang members was easy.

“We get a lot of buy-in from the older gang members or former gang members because they don’t want their sons or nephews to get caught up in the same life they did,” Senegal said.

Seeing through the lie

Deon Deloney, another former gang member, teaches a weekly class at the community center on how to use basic tools and make simple construction repairs.

“When they first start, most of these kids are there because someone is making them be there,” Deloney said. “They act out and say it’s all a bunch of bull. But that changes pretty quickly.”

Deloney said he understands why many kids get into gangs.

“I used to do an hour of gang intervention before class, to let them talk about why and how they got in gangs,” Deloney said. “To a person, they all talked about wanting to feel wanted. So they bought into the lie.”

The lie, Deloney said, is that gang members care about you and want to give you a place to belong.

“They don’t want to listen to the truth until they get inside the gang and see the lies themselves,” Deloney said. “Then they want to listen to the truth. The truth is, the gang members just want them to do things to fill their pockets.”

A lasting impact

Other groups that have a vested interest in revitalizing this community have already noticed the impact of Hope Builds.

Artie Padilla is executive director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, a group that connects local churches with elementary schools to make a difference in the community. He said Hope Builds does far more than teach kids marketable skills.

“Hope Builds provides an on-ramp for youth to be engaged in something empowering and gives them a chance to learn something they can use,” he said. “The relational part of it — engaging with people they wouldn’t normally be associating with — is huge. They are in these workshops, working with adults and kids they wouldn’t socialize with normally. That makes a lasting impact.”

Most of the success stories right now are anecdotal. But that will change as Hope Builds and other organizations gain a foothold in this community.

Part of Padilla’s mission is to get elementary, middle and high school administrators to provide attendance and behavioral reports of students who participate in various community programs.

“If we can measure the change in attendance and behavior at school from semester to semester,” he said, “we think that can provide us some supporting evidence that what we’re doing is making a difference.”

The future starts now

James Reeves, 18, has been involved with Hope Builds for two years now. He’s a soft-spoken young man who lives with his mother and enjoys playing video games at home and building birdhouses at the community center.

Over the past couple of years, he has lost several close friends to gang-related violence.

“The gangs, they aren’t worth it,” Reeves said. “I want to make something of my life, not be killing people or having people kill me.”

The young man’s mother, Barbara Watters, said she was never in a gang, but she grew up with them all around her. Hope Builds, she said, gives her peace of mind.

“It makes me happy to know he’s there,” she said. “If not for Hope Builds, I don’t know what my son would be up to. I can relax when he’s there. I love them to death.”

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