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Teens Embrace YouthBuild’s Chance To Reset ‒ And Feel Seen

YouthBuild members Amarion Cleveland and Megan McClure
YouthBuild McLean County
YouthBuild members Amarion Cleveland and Megan McClure.

When Megan McClure and Amarion Cleveland attended public school, they felt the environment didn’t support their goals. Feeling out of place and overlooked, they decided to take an alternative route to success and found safe haven ‒ plus a trip of a lifetime to Washington D.C. ‒ through a program known for shaping future leaders: YouthBuild McLean County.

“I left public school because of my social anxiety,” said McClure, a 17-year-old from Normal. “I didn't feel accepted and being unhappy there really affected my education. Joining YouthBuild and becoming part of a community that cares to check up on me and make sure that I'm always at my tip top, has been the best experience.”

Located at over 200 sites across the country, YouthBuild programs give teens who are unemployed or left high school the opportunity to reclaim their education, gain the skills needed to start their careers, and become leaders in their communities.

McClure is studying information technology.

“I've learned about computer hardware, websites, and our IT team gives back by going to the Boys & Girls Club to teach the kids about internet safety, cyberbullying, and how technology is a growing aspect in society today,” she said.“I’ve enjoyed my experience because it's a lot more than just sitting at a desk, and I find that very fun.”

Feeling overlooked in high school, Cleveland agreed with McClure that YouthBuild was a great route to take in an attempt to continue their education. Cleveland is studying construction.

“We've been working on this place called Pet Central, and it's for people who rescue injured or lost animals to bring them there and get them all healthy. We've been building it from the ground up to support them in any way that we can and we've got very far,” he said.

Cleveland, a 16-year-old from Normal, said his favorite part is “being noticed.”

“In public schools, I never stood out to people, but at YouthBuild I'm a leader and they make me feel appreciated,” he said.

Executive Director Tracey Polson said YouthBuild caters to youth who want to see a positive change in their lives.

“There are a lot of reasons young people go to high school, but there's only one reason they come to YouthBuild, because whatever they were doing wasn’t working and they need a more individualized experience in order to complete their education,” Polson said.

“These students also want to earn some marketable job skills and build a support system of people who aim to elevate them to some kind of productive future,” she said. “At YouthBuild, we start talking about careers the first day we meet students because that's our goal, to help them not only get high school finished, but leave with a whole toolbox of skills and information they can take and apply to any work situation.”

Life-Changing Experience In D.C.

In June, the national YouthBuild USA hosted its 30th annual YouthBuild Conference of Young Leaders in Arlington, Virginia. McClure and Cleveland were unanimously selected from the McLean County site by staff and peers to attend the conference for their outstanding record of over 600 hours in community service, attendance, and academic excellence through the program. 

“It's a wonderful thing to be chosen as this is one of our highest opportunities. They were given a one week all expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., and for some of our students, it's the very first time that they've ever been on an airplane, at a hotel, and even out of Bloomington-Normal,” Polson said.

McClure and Cleveland said the conference was a life-changing experience. 

“I met a lot of people that I keep in touch with now, and we all motivate each other. It was so diverse and overall I never thought I’d be in such a big place like that. It was life changing to say,” McClure said. 

“We took tours, visited the monuments, and it just motivated me to work harder so I can see big things like that again in the future. I learned that just like at the YouthBuild here in McLean County is filled with love, it’slike that in all the other locations too,” Cleveland said. 

YouthBuild McLean County has provided education and youth development services for 25 years. The year 2018 was difficult for the program, as a spike of gun violence in Bloomington-Normal impacted some of its former students. 

Polson said after those tragedies, the program had to self reflect and figure out what elements to improve to better serve students.

“I think that as a youth-serving organization one of the things that we really had to stop and look at is, are we doing everything that we can do to support? I think the answer was no,” she said. “We do a lot of things but there were other things that we needed to do to. We needed to start talking about how we could empower young people to make decisions when they weren't in school, when they weren't around those influential adults, and I think we also did address how we could positively influence the time when young people were not at YouthBuild or involved in other positive activities,” Polson said.

YouthBuild reached out to its partners and convened groups of young people to discuss what was happening in the streets, she said.

“We don't have it all figured out, but I think one thing that was really clear after the events that happened last summer is that we are a landing zone for young people when they're in trouble, when they're happy, when they're celebrating, and we're going to continue to be that place. We're going to love our young people and hold onto them as hard as we can because we don't know what tomorrow will bring. That's all we can do,” she said.

After graduation, both McClure and Cleveland intend to come back to the program and meet the new members.

“I really do like the idea of coming back to the school after I graduate because when we went to Washington, D.C., we met people who have gone through the youth program and succeeded. They were there that day helping all of us and showing us around such a big place with so many important people. It showed me that YouthBuild really does have a huge impact on people, so I don't think I could ever leave it and never come back.” McClure said. 

YouthBuild is an accredited high school and offers vocational training as well. Career pathways include residential construction, information technology, and health care. A new CNA program will launch in the fall.

“We do a lot of different things to help support young people because they all have a diverse set of needs. Our goal is to figure out what to work with the student on and get them on the best pathway to finish their education. It's going to be a challenge but for anyone who's up for some positive changes in their lives, we're definitely the place to start,” Polson said.

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.