- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dorothy Stoneman was so overjoyed with emotion last week, she just couldn’t stop crying.# #She had to “fight back the tears” not because she just celebrated a significant birthday, not because it was literally raining on her parade at the Mall, and not because she was about to come face-to-face with America’s first lady, Michelle Obama.

Ms. Stoneman was happy to realize a dream come true. The self-help community organization she founded as a Harlem school teacher with a handful of unemployed dropouts 30 years ago, now YouthBuild USA, is finally “connecting the grassroots with the White House and feel that we are one with each other,” she said.

“For so many years we’ve been fighting against the grain, now we are doing it with the grain, and the Obamas clearly care about the young people who have been thrown aside,” Ms. Stoneman said. “It’s such a shift in hope.”

As the 67-year-old Harvard graduate and former civil-rights worker watched her “baby,” YouthBuild, grow from the ground up, like the “green” house being built on the Mall, she was definitely not the only one elated about the success of the organization that has helped more than 84,000 students, that has produced 18,000 units of low-income housing just since 1994.

In the backdrop under a massive tent on the cold, soggy Mall on Tuesday, saws buzzed and hammers blasted nails as excited foremen and workers shouted “Youth, Build; Youth, Build,” in a call-and-response chant while they constructed the framework of a “green” house with the help of members of Congress, including longtime supporter Sen. John Kerry and the handshakes, hugs and encouragement of Mrs. Obama.

“I know how proud Dorothy must be today. Thirty years of anything is an amazing feat,” Mrs. Obama said. “But walking through these displays and talking to some of the most intelligent, focused and knowledgeable young people makes me proud; it should make this country proud.”

Mrs. Obama also talked about the importance of community service and volunteering, and how her husband, President Obama, started his career as a community organizer in Chicago.

The first lady, dressed in a sweater set, slacks and work boots, also mentioned how the Serve America and GIVE acts making their way through Congress “will enable millions of Americans to serve their communities and help meet the nation’s greatest challenges.”

More than 100 low-income youths from urban and rural communities won coveted spots in the YouthBuild AmeriCorps programs across the country, which they have dubbed “the Harvard of the Hood.” They were scurrying about, building the energy-efficient, affordable home and participating in the Green Academy mini-lectures, which focused on green building, green-collar jobs and energy responsibility.

“Community service is not just an escape for the wealthy or for those students who can afford it - which is something that I couldn’t do growing up,” Mrs. Obama said.

Most of YouthBuild’s students and graduates were either high school dropouts or juvenile defendants, so the program provides them with an opportunity to get their diplomas or GEDs and trains them for future construction trades, particularly involving new green technologies and materials. Those participating through AmeriCorps also earn money to defray the cost of college.

Ms. Stoneman said YouthBuild must turn away 14,000 applicants a year. However, the Obama administration has included money in the stimulus package that is intended to increase the number of disadvantaged youths who will be able to participate in YouthBuild’s 226 programs nationwide.

“The Obamas recognize the potential and the talent that’s been locked in the poor house, and we’re unleashing that talent,” Ms. Stoneman said.

The YouthBuild home on the Mall is being transported to Colonia, Texas, where it will be donated to Merary Rios, a single mother of three, whose home was damaged by Hurricane Dolly. Though she continues to work two jobs, Mrs. Rios’ family lived in a mobile home near the U.S.-Mexico border, but now sleeps with nearby relatives because the mold made their home uninhabitable.

Today YouthBuild is a public-private partnership among the U.S. Department of Labor, the Corporation for National and Community Service (which manages AmeriCorps) and YouthBuild USA and hundreds of community-based nonprofit organizations. The network is supported by private donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wal-Mart Foundation and Bank of America.

The petite Ms. Stoneman currently lives in the Boston area with her husband, John Bell, who is a vice president for YouthBuild USA, headquartered in Summerville, Mass. Her daughter, Sierra Stoneman-Bell, worked in the original East Harlem program her mother founded. The couple also have an adopted son, Taro, 21.

Ms. Stoneman characterized herself as “a child of the ‘60s who wanted to make a difference,” so she joined the civil-rights movement in 1964 and spent the next 24 years in East Harlem, attempting to reduce poverty by developing community-based schools, youth programs, housing projects and grassroots coalitions designed to engage young people and their parents.

When Ms. Stoneman moved to Harlem, where she set up preschools and taught second grade in PS 92, it was immediately clear that the teenagers in the neighborhood were a wasted resource - idle on the streets because there was nothing productive for them to do. As her former second-grade students grew up, many became victims of violence or drugs. One of them, Wesley Terry, a promising 7-year-old in 1965, was killed in the early 1970s.

“It became clear that low-income people could think very clearly about problems facing them and needed to be included in creating the solutions,” said Ms. Stoneman. On Tuesday, she reminisced, a bit misty-eyed, about how she “had to learn to work as a white person in Harlem and how to be of service” to Harlem residents.

When she asked the young people what they wanted to do most for their neighborhood, they answered that they wanted to take back the abandoned houses being used by drug dealers, rebuild them and eliminate crime.

For her work, Ms. Stoneman was awarded a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 1996, the John Gardner Annual Leadership Award from the Independent Sector in 2000, the international Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2007, and was named a Senior Ashoka Fellow in 2008.

YouthBuild USA received $1,015,000 from the Skoll Foundation as part of the international award, which the organization is using, in part, to spread the word about its programs.

And this week Ms. Stoneman returns to the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford in England. The World Forum “convenes a global community of outstanding practitioners and thought leaders in social entrepreneurship to set the future agenda for visionaries who want to transform society,” it says on its Web site.

“YouthBuild USA has been replicated by organizations in several other countries including South Africa, Canada, Mexico and Israel,” Ms. Stoneman said.

Ms. Stoneman dreamed of a movement of young people who would change the conditions in their communities. “Now I have my marching orders from them to spread this to 50,000 youth around the world.”

For more information about YouthBuild, visit www.youthbuild.org.

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