Second chances

YouthBuild Chico offers dropouts and young offenders a diploma and vocational training

Kevin Abbott credits YouthBuild Chico with saving him from a life of crime and addiction.

Kevin Abbott credits YouthBuild Chico with saving him from a life of crime and addiction.

Photo by Ken Smith

Hands-on experience:

YouthBuild Chico offers orientations the first Wednesday of each month at 12:30 p.m. at John Muir Charter School, 2145 Park Ave., No. 13. For more information call 809-2498.

At the age of 24, Kevin Abbott hit rock bottom. He’d been convicted of a felony for manufacturing hash oil, an enterprise he’d started to help fund a $100,000-a-year heroin and opiate addiction he’d developed three years earlier. Adolescent dreams of becoming an English teacher or following other family members into a construction career had fallen by the wayside, and the missteps of his youth threatened to define the rest of his life.

“After a felony conviction, I thought it was over,” Abbott said during a recent interview. “I figured I’d spend the rest of my life growing weed, or at best take whatever dead-end jobs I could get.”

Abbott served a few months of his sentence behind bars before moving to house arrest, at which point a case worker from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office asked if he wanted to learn construction skills. He agreed and last October enrolled in YouthBuild Chico, a grant-funded program dedicated to providing seriously at-risk youths the chance to get a high school diploma and valuable vocational training with an emphasis on construction.

YouthBuild is an international organization that operates in 46 states and 27 countries. To qualify for the program, students must be between 16 and 24 years old and have been convicted of a crime or left high school without a diploma. Many students hail from low-income households and have experienced homelessness, addiction and the foster care system. Homeless students, those who’ve suffered addiction and those referred by the BCSO are placed in transitional or sober-living facilities while attending YouthBuild. The program is funded by grants.

The Chico chapter was founded in 2013 and is offered at the Grass Valley-based John Muir Charter School, whose Chico campus is located in a converted warehouse on Park Avenue. Students attend school there from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week. In addition to studies, on-site counseling, résumé writing and conducting mock interviews, students develop hands-on construction skills and must complete at least 10 hours of community service weekly. Graduates walk away with a diploma, as well as certifications in forklift operation, CPR/first aid and other skills sought by employers. The school will begin offering welding and other programs in the near future.

“The day I got here, a staff member said, ‘The two things we’re going to give you are hope and an opportunity, and what you do with that is up to you,’” Abbott said while discussing the school’s emphases on discipline, self-reliance and respect for oneself and others. Those values are conveyed with a healthy dose of patriotism and a touch of quasi-military tradition.

On a recent weekday morning, students worked independently on various projects—cooking breakfast, tinkering with birdhouses and wooden furniture in the school’s parking lot—while the staff held a twice-weekly meeting to discuss daily business and the progress and needs of each individual student. The meeting was presided over by former Fair View High School Principal Bernard Vigallon, who co-founded YouthBuild Chico with Jack Rodgers, the program’s construction coordinator.

Vigallon, or “Vig” as he’s known to students and staff, introduces himself as “the school nurse,” though his leadership role is clear. His personality is equal parts firm and funny; he’s a wisecracking straight-shooter with a fondness for nicknames (one student using a walking stick for a recent foot injury is known as Gandalf; another is named Lurch based on his resemblance to the Addams Family butler).

At 9:15 a.m., everyone gathered in the warehouse’s main room. About half of the roughly two dozen students attending that day were dressed in dark blue YouthBuild shirts, while the others, known as “probies,” wore plain blue jeans and white T-shirts. All new students spend their two week probationary period accomplishing a series of tasks known as the “mental toughness challenge” to determine if they’re a good fit for the program. The tasks include remembering the names of all students and staff; written testing; and building a chair, a table and a birdhouse from broken-down wood palettes.

At the morning gathering, some of the senior students, known as “boots,” presided over the “post” ceremony. Each presented an item painted red, white and blue and decorated with stars and stripes—a shovel, a lunch pail, a pair of work boots—while reciting a phrase about the item’s symbolism. Vigillon’s sense of humor even infiltrated this solemn tradition. The student posting a lunch pail to symbolize family recited, “You should carry a photo of your family in your lunch pail to remind you what you’re working for, and if you don’t have a family, then Vig will be your grandmother.”

After post, students engaged in physical training, which that day consisted of running the length of the school’s parking lot several times. Afterward, the students divided up to do different tasks. Some returned to their carpentry projects while others donned ties to participate in mock interviews.

Rodgers explained that every aspect of the work done by students is to teach them applicable values and life skills: “We try to make it as real as possible,” he said. “This is a job, and we have the same expectations that employers do—show up, be cool and take care of business.”

Abbott is already applying the skills he’s learning to the real world. He spends his weekends working with Rodgers installing granite countertops, and hopes to get hired to work with him full-time after graduation. He credits the program, and the staff, with turning his life around.

“There’s a lot of knowledge here, a lot of support and a lot of love,” he said.