If there’s one place students don’t want to be, it’s in Mr. J’s A.S.S. “After school suspension,” explains Mr. J. “Sometimes kids need acronyms.”
Mr. J. is Kevin Jarigese, superintendent of the vocational program at YouthBuild, an alternative charter high school in Albuquerque that combines academic coursework and hands-on training in construction. A picture in his office shows Jarigese flying over Area 51 in southern Nevada, where he measured the gamma waves of nuclear bombs. Now Jarigese is concerned with another class of explosives. “No F-bombs,” he warns his students. “Your language dictates your character.”
For the last two months, YouthBuild students have been reconstructing part of Trinity House, a small homeless shelter in the South Valley. The shelter was established in the tradition of Catholic Workers, a network that promotes social activism and religious zeal. Founded in 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the Trinity test, the shelter’s name is in homage to the Holy Trinity and to the fight against nuclear warfare. The cats that roam the shelter are named for nuclear warheads: Fizz, Mohawk and Midnight Zephyr.
“All cats are naturally nuclear abolitionists,” says Marcus Page, founder of Trinity House. Page is a self-described anarchist and “cat-aholic” who lobbies against nuclearism and drives a truck fueled by frying oil.
Jarigese, however, believes in gas and the government. “For the most part,” says Jarigese of Area 51, “what we’ve done as a government has been very, very good.”
Differences aside, Jarigese and Page share the same priorities: family and community first. Both YouthBuild and Trinity House operate on the same basic principles of kinship and compassion, and offer scarce services to people for whom the system hasn’t worked.
For many of YouthBuild’s students, the school is their last shot at salvation. “These are kids who aren’t making it in the regular system,” says Jarigese. Most have done drugs and jail time, have been in gangs and suffer from what Jarigese calls “the street disease.”
“Once they’ve got the street disease, there’s no turning back for some of these kids,” he says. “We’re helping them turn back.” YouthBuild gives students the chance--often, second and third chances--for a high school diploma, college credit for coursework, transferable to CNM or UNM, and on-the-job training in construction. Students are paid minimum wage for their work. “We pay the kids to go to school,” says Nick Stone, YouthBuild trainer and program graduate. “You can’t beat that.”
Many of its students use the money for necessities, like rent, food and utilities. “We’re really trying to get the kids off the street,” says Jarigese. “This is their last chance and there’s no place else to go. This is home. We’re family.”
For residents of Trinity House, the shelter offers similar comforts, as well as respite from the street. The building that houses the shelter was once a hospice for people dying of AIDS. Part of the house has been abandoned since 2003, when the hospice closed. Catherine, a resident at Trinity House, believes the building may be haunted, and tells of a door banging open inexplicably. The YouthBuild kids, she says, are scraping cobwebs from the corners, demolishing walls, laying tile, restoring the bathroom and turning the abandoned half of the house into a space that’s more inviting--and less spooky.
“I’ve had many conversations with the kids,” says Catherine. “Especially one, ‘M.’ He wears an ankle bracelet for his probation. He was talking about how he really wants to change. He got shot in the ribs--you know, gang-banger stuff.” Catherine hunches over and pokes herself in the side. “Right here,” she says. “Now that’s a wake-up call.”
A wake-up call is what brought most of the students to YouthBuild. “I wanted a change,” says Myron Yazzie, 17, who moved from Arizona to attend the program. “I wanted to get my life straightened out.” Patrick Encinias, 19, knew he needed a change, too. “I used to spend every day, all day, in bed, in front of the TV,” he says. “Finally, my mom put a foot up my butt and told me to do something with my life. Now, I am.”
“It’s gonna straighten their lives out,” Catherine says of YouthBuild. “Some of them just won’t get it, but others, like M., they will. Sometimes, you can look at someone and see into a person’s heart, and other times, you know they’re full of crap.” M., she says, is genuine. “I have faith,” says Catherine. “He’ll do good.”
YouthBuild students are proud of the work they’re doing at Trinity House. Most want to stay off the streets--and out of Mr. J’s ass. They imagine grand futures: earning fortunes working oil rigs, joining the military, practicing massage therapy and becoming business owners. “Just wait,” warns Raul Vela, 19. “I’m going worldwide.” Before career, YouthBuild students realize that education takes precedence. Says Vela, “I can’t wait to go to college, man.”
Catherine M. found salvation from the street in Jesus. YouthBuild students have found salvation in the program’s unorthodox approach and in Mr. J’s tough love tactics. “I’m learning, I’m doing construction, I’m in school and I’m being paid,” says Encinias. “I’m proving everybody wrong. And it feels good.”