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The right kind of investment in our youth

As elected leaders and policymakers struggle to kick-start our economy, a key element of recovery is education and training opportunities for low-income young people.

In the Havre area, we know that youth training programs work because of the success of our YouthBuild program. It helps low-income youth who have left school, and who may have gotten in trouble with the law, to get the skills they need for a better future.

Paul Tuss

On the Hi-Line where unemployment rates regularly soar to 70 percent on our Indian reservations, every student who gets job training is a success story.

Young people go to YouthBuild of North Central Montana because they want a better future. They want to earn a living, have safe homes for their children and eradicate drug and alcohol abuse in their communities. In many cases, YouthBuild has helped to provide the hope and guidance that they need to make their dreams a reality through work and cooperation.

YouthBuild is a national youth and community development program where low-income young people ages 16 to 24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills in the construction trades and serve their communities by building affordable housing while transforming their own lives. There are 273 YouthBuild programs across the country where 110,000 YouthBuild students have built 21,000 units of affordable housing since 1994.

Despite that strong record, in May of last year, 121 YouthBuild programs across the country lost their main source of funding through the U.S. Department of Labor.

These cuts are shortsighted. In YouthBuild programs, students develop a personal skill set that will be useful today, tomorrow and for the rest of their lives. It's like riding a bicycle — once you learn, you always know how to ride. Young people may not get a job today, but their skills don't have an expiration date.

In the past three years, 95 students have enrolled in the YouthBuild of North Central Montana program in Havre, based at Montana State University-Northern. Those who complete the program are leaving with skills, hope and support. YouthBuild's population at MSU-N is 79 percent Native American. Seventy-three percent of students have encountered the criminal justice system, 77 percent have dropped out of school and 39 percent are parents. Some students enter the program without basic skills in reading, writing and math, but one year after successfully completing the program, approximately two-thirds of the students either have been enrolled in post-secondary education or are working.

Consider the story of Kyle LaFromboise. He was a 21-year-old high school dropout with an infant son when he decided that it was time to make a change in his life. He says that YouthBuild gave him a motivation boost and taught him that he could meet any challenge. Three months after completing the program, Kyle became a patrol officer in the Rocky Boy's police department and was recently promoted to night shift acting sergeant.

The students of YouthBuild make a difference in our community by improving and providing affordable housing, particularly on our Indian reservations. Few homes here are sufficiently energy efficient to withstand the deep freeze of winters and our blistering summers. And we are in desperate need of affordable, single-family units, senior housing and rentals.

YouthBuild students have helped to weatherproof homes and did framing and rough carpentry on two new homes for families on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Students have also worked with Mutual Self-Help and built a modular home on the MSU-Northern campus, which will be moved to the Rocky Boy's reservation.

The current students are constructing a visitor center at the Wahkpa Chu'gn Buffalo Jump, which was used by Native American tribes to harvest the animals for food, clothing and shelter.

Instead of cutting back youth development programs like YouthBuild, we should find ways to expand them because of the profound difference they make in the lives of youth and in communities, here in Montana and throughout the country.

I encourage our federal legislators, particularly Rep. Denny Rehberg, who chairs the congressional subcommittee that funds workforce development programs, to look under YouthBuild's hood and kick the tires. This is a road-tested program that works.

We all know that it's not just one thing that will turn our economy around. YouthBuild has focused local leadership from MSU-Northern, tribal government, community groups and our area's construction trades industry. With a strong commitment from federal lawmakers, we can all do what's possible to fuel job creation and skills development and create a brighter future for our communities. When we all work together, we have limitless potential.

(Paul Tuss is executive director of the Bear Paw Development Corp., a community and economic development organization located in havre that serves Hill, Blaine, Liberty, Chouteau and Phillips counties and the Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.)

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