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Director of Civic Works’ YouthBuild program constructs connection between young people and service

Serving low-income, 16-to-24-year-old Baltimore City residents, YouthBuild helps young people to finish their high school education and earn certificates in fields, such as construction and nursing.

Based in Northeast Baltimore’s Belair-Edison, the YouthBuild program mostly serves African American men from the city, including the Coldstream Montebello Homestead and Belair-Edison neighborhoods.

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Candice Blackwell is the director of YouthBuild and director of education programs for Civic Works, a nonprofit community service organization.
Candice Blackwell is the director of YouthBuild and director of education programs for Civic Works, a nonprofit community service organization. (Candice Blackwell / HANDOUT)

Candice Blackwell has been director of YouthBuild, part of the nonprofit community service organization Civic Works, since 2018. The program, like so many others, went virtual last March and has been hybrid for the last year.

“I aim to stay busy,” said Blackwell, 37. “I aim to stay innovative — I understand that changes are constant. I have to be ready to try new things, fail at things and get up and try new things.”

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Construction classes, for example, now involve assignments like building a birdhouse or painting a wall. Students send videos of their completed work to their instructors.

In 2020, YouthBuild was awarded a $11,000 grant by the nonprofit YouthBuild USA. The money was used to purchase 20 laptops mostly for students and to create an app named YBConnect. The app, which is for internal use only, allows users to find food banks, clothing drives and access community forums.

Donte Barnes, 18, of East Baltimore, was introduced to YouthBuild by his probation officer. In 2019, he and two friends robbed two people by the Patterson High School building in Bayview, he said. He and his friends took money and left the scene, he said, but because a co-defendant was later found with a gun, Barnes, then 16, was also charged with armed robbery. He said he was in jail for about six months.

Virtual learning wasn’t clicking for him, Barnes said.

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His original plan was to earn a GED diploma, he said, but YouthBuild helped him realize he should go back to school.

His goal is to get a construction certificate with a backup plan of enrolling in the military. He’s been encouraging others in similar situations to join YouthBuild.

“It’s a different type of staff. I got a bunch of people that’s right there who want to help me at all times,” he said. “When I was in school, I never had that much help.”

Blackwell is a Baltimore native and 2002 graduate of Randallstown High School and 2010 graduate of the University of Baltimore, where she received a bachelor’s degree in human services administration.

In more than 10 years at Civic Works, she’s held several titles, including education program supervisor and education program coordinator.

She said she developed a passion for helping young adults after realizing her work reminded her of her own struggles as a young Black woman. For instance, after becoming pregnant with her daughter, Aniyah Blackwell-Moore, during her freshman year of college, her studies suffered and she was put on academic probation.

It took her eight years to graduate, she said, and that wouldn’t have happened without the support of “her village,” or family, including her mother, Edna, and father, Glenn.

Working in the nonprofit world comes with challenges, she said: The biggest one is dealing with bureaucracy. Her program’s funding primarily comes from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, but it comes with strings.

The terms of YouthBuild’s funding say the program should eliminate many of the barriers to opportunity for its participants by the end of six months of enrollment, Blackwell said. That includes obtaining a GED diploma or completing most of the requirements and getting a job.

“That’s not realistic. We are unable to tackle all of those problems for that young person within six months,” she said. “What we are likely to do is build some level of confidence — get their reading level up and help [them] explore some jobs and think about what they want to do in the future.”

The U.S. Department of Labor said Monday that funding is awarded through a competitive process, and that performance “in meeting participant outcome measures is one component of the grant selection criteria.”

“YouthBuild programs are designed around a proven cohort enrollment model that is well regarded and proven effective. The period of performance for the most recent grant recipients is 40 months, including a four-month planning period, two years of active program service, and a 12-month follow up period,” said Monica Vereen, a Labor Department spokesperson. “Throughout the planning period, a Federal Project Officer reviews milestones as outlined in the application process. The Department continually evaluates programming to ensure funding goals are met.”

The Mayor’s Office of Development did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the challenges, Blackwell has big plans for YouthBuild.

She’d like to build a dorm in Belair-Edison for the unhoused and expand training opportunities for the health care program as well as create an early childhood education program.

“There’s a need [for the dorm],” Blackwell said. “A lot of the things that become ideas of mine come from talking with my students about what they need.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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