DIY : Empowering youth through home building program

Birmingham City Councilor John Hilliard looked on as teenagers took turns swinging a sledgehammer against a tree stump that needed to be removed behind a house in Ensley.

The crackling sounds of hedge trimmers and lawnmowers could be heard as the busy group moved to and fro, working in unison to clear the back yard of debris.

The power tool-wielding teenagers were taking part in the inaugural Build Up Alabama’s month-long boot camp to teach Birmingham’s youth skills that will enable them to build, repair and maintain homes. More importantly, they’re fixing dilapidated homes in the very neighborhoods they live in.

Build Up Alabama is the first program of its kind in America, explained Mark Martin, the founder and CEO of the organization whose goal is to empower at-risk youth and put them on a path toward a trade career and homeownership. For the last 18 months, Martin and his team have been working toward the goal of having a fully accredited trade school that will allow students to work toward eventually owning their own renovated duplex, a project they will complete themselves.

“God just placed this vision on my soul,” Martin said. “Right now we’re taking kids from all over the community but we want young folks who are focused, living in Ensley and want to see their community come back and want to be a part of bringing it back. Ideally, we’re looking for kids between ages 14 to 16 whose parents have been stuck in a rental situation for years and aren’t gaining equity in anything. We want them to have a piece of the pie here.”

One key component of the program, Martin explained, is connecting all the classroom learning with the paid apprenticeships that take place in the afternoon. “They’re getting both a high quality education, a high school diploma and an associates degree. But they’re also getting paid along the way to rebuild their community,” Martin said.

So how do students eventually take ownership of a property? Martin said that over the course of six years the group of students who complete the program will take on a zero percent interest loan, similar to Habitat for Humanity’s model, and they will start making payments on their home.

“Nothing is free. There are no handouts. But they will take on ownership. They’re not only going to be in owner-occupied units, but they also have a duplex so they can make passive income through their rental property, gaining wealth and bringing stability to their neighborhood.”

Ruben Morris, one of the instructors with Build Up Alabama said the first week of the boot camp has been both rewarding and challenging for the students. On this particular day, the group was outside learning about landscape demolition.

“We’ve done a house demo, now we’re out here working on landscaping. We’re going to come back through and do some planting,” Morris said. “We’ve got approximately 20 students here from various schools. Many of them are local to the Ensley community. Our goal is to expose them to homebuilding, both blue-collar and white-collar. Today is all about hard work. We’re hoping these students become part of our permanent program in the fall.”

With the boot camp, the kids are in class or working on a home from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and afterwards, the students participate in the paid apprenticeship as the homebuilding exercises continue.

Hilliard was blown away by the effort these students brought to the work being done at the house on Wednesday. “Wow, I’m just so excited these kids are getting hands-on experience,” Hilliard said. “My first time coming out with them they were renovating a house. Now they’re removing tree stumps and learning how to safely use these tools. These are important things that will give these kids a skill set they can use for a career.”

As for what this new program and school — when it opens this fall — will mean to District 9, Hilliard said, “The impact will be humongous. District 9 still hasn’t fully recovered from the 2011 tornadoes. The skill set these kids are learning is greatly needed.”

The permanent location of the school will be in Ensley. Build Up is the middle of fundraising and are looking to have the fully-accredited program launched this fall so that students will be able to learn skills that are needed in Birmingham. With the need for trade careers on the rise, Build Up Alabama is playing a vital role in helping bridge the gap between low-income families and home ownership through hard work and dedication.


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