August 22, 2004 – From the ground, the ropes course at the Jackson Complex at Antilles School looks something like a jungle gym. Poles and ropes, harnesses and carabineers are all just waiting for the right people to come along and put them to the use for which they were made – building teamwork skills.
Recently, a group of young men from St. Thomas and St. John did just that as they began a two-week challenge on the ropes course. They signed on to the YouthBuild program, in which unemployed and undereducated young people from 16-24 years old work toward their general education degrees. One component of the program is mental toughness, and that's where the ropes course comes in.
"They were really hesitant because it was something new to them,"says Diahann Ryan, interim program manager for YouthBuild. "Eventually they fell into the routine. At first they werent working together as a group."
The group started the first week on the low ropes course, which has challenges that reinforce cooperation and meeting goals as a group.
"We were guiding them into environments that they would have to communicate more clearly to one another," said Marshann Sam, co-facilitator for the course. "You encourage them to break down some barriers, begin a process of them being willing to have conversations with one another."
The second week brought the YouthBuild group to the high ropes course, where most of the challenges are 45-feet off the ground.
"Thats where the real work begins," said Sam. "Now they can communicate with each other and there is an element of trust. We take what's been developed on the low ropes and take it to the high ropes course."
While valuable for team building and cooperation, the ropes course only covers the two-week mental toughness portion of YouthBuild. YouthBuild is a 48-week program, which helps young adults earn their GEDs, teaches them the construction trade, and focuses on leadership development. In 2001, the Virgin Islands received close to quarter million dollars in grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the program here. In accordance with the grant, 75 percent of the participants must live in public housing to qualify; the other 25 percent have to meet low-income requirements.
This is the second year for YouthBuild on the Virgin Islands, and so far its been hailed a success. Twenty young adults from St. Thomas and St. John participated in the first year. Of them, five got jobs with public housing, three went to Denmark to study masonry, and several of them have earned their GEDs.
"Its time has come, particularly here in the Virgin Islands," said Irma Hodge, director of Public Relations and Resident Services for the Virgin Islands Housing Authority. "There is so much need and interest for young people to develop skills in the construction and vocational trades. We looked at the first year as a pilot program. We plan to apply for funding again in 2005."
Students spend part of the day completing core courses to earn their degree. The rest of the time is spent on a construction site. This team is working with Reliance Housing to build Bellevue Village, low income housing on St. John.
If the ropes course portion of the program is any indication, the rest of the year should run smoothly for YouthBuild.
"They gelled," said Ryan. "They encouraged each other. They're going to be spending the next 48 weeks together. We would like for some sort of mentorship to develop so they can encourage others to stay in the program and to excel."
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