Communities In unity
Harambee Youth Training
An interview with Executive Director, Jeffrey Clay.
What is Harambee?
Harambee is a training organization that works with at-risk youth ages 12-18.
But that description doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Harambee — meaning “let’s pull together” in Swahili — is a program located in the West End, centered around the neighborhoods of Ward 22 and Ward 26. Harambee’s focus? Taking local youth and teaching them a masonry skill called tuckpointing.
It wasn’t always tuckpointing. In the beginning, they tried all types of skills — glass cutting, painting, roofing. But the city of Saint Louis is based in brick. In the neighborhoods where these youth live, there were many people whose homes were in disrepair and who were in danger of losing insurance because of it. One of the biggest hurdles they faced: they had to have tuckpointing done. It can cost anywhere from $15,000 – $20,000 to have an entire home tuckpointed, depending on the size and state of disrepair. For homeowners in this district, where the Area Median Income (AMI) is around $43,000, this is an unaffordable expense.
So a few aldermen in the city put some money together, invested it in Harambee, and the program took off.
Jeffrey Clay has been with Harambee almost 20 years. First as a summer crew leader, he volunteered his time in his breaks from teaching at Forsyth School. From there, he became a summer supervisor, and then Assistant Director until 2018 when the professional tuckpointing company split into a LLC. Since 2018 he has been Executive Director of the youth training organization.
What does Harambee offer the youth?
Harambee recognizes that although it would be nice for all youth to continue to college, that is not the reality for many of the at-risk youth in the West End. So they aim to give the youth a job skill they can use. “You ask these kids, ‘if you weren’t with Harambee what would you be doing?’” Jeffrey says. “They say they would probably be out gang-banging, selling drugs.. it’s just the nature of the community, the neighborhood we live in.” So Harambee offers the kids an alternative to being involved in the gang. And if the youth enjoy the program and want to continue professionally, they can join the LLC and make a real wage using their skill.
Along with teaching tuckpointing, a secondary goal of Harambee is to improve the neighborhoods through providing tuckpointing to those who can’t afford it. Their main clients are low-income homeowners who earn less than 80% of the AMI, who can apply to have the tuckpointing work done for free. Many clients are widows or older individuals, and Harambee is a resource that allows them to keep their insurance and stay in their homes. Plus, it allows the youth to be part of the improvement of their own neighborhoods.
The program structure:
There are two parts to the program.
One part is the summer program. The summer program is 8 weeks long, for 8 hours a day, with five crews out in the neighborhood. Typically a summer program has around 100 kids, divided up into crews.
The second part is the after-school program. There are two, 12-week after-school programs throughout the year. These typically have 30 to 40 kids per session, and the students come after school and work from 3:30 to 7 pm. These students are also eligible to receive an educational stipend, if they participate in a basic life skills class offered by Harambee. These classes can include anything from balancing a checkbook to conflict resolution, and anything in between. As the students age through the program, their stipend increases.
With both the summer and after-school programs, students are taught the skills to progress from a novice to an expert. When students come into the program at age 12 and 13, they start learning the basics of job site safety, how to mix the mortar and clean up the site. At 14 and 15 they master the tools — the hawk and joiner –and start learning the technique for making a mortar pancake. By 16, the older students are ready to “do the heavy lifting.” They grind the mortar out and apply it to the brick, often up in the air three stories high on the scaffolding.
The program is incredibly successful. Youth in Harambee have a 98% graduation rate from high school, and once students are in the program they almost always go all the way through. Because of this high retention rate, often the only time when there is space for new members is at age 12 or 13 from the program’s first year. Jeffrey says “they take ownership of this work that they’re doing. Many of these kids live in this neighborhood, they drive down the street and say ‘hey, I worked on this house right there.’” And that is something else the program instills in the youth. “It’s not always about ‘what’s in it for me.’ How do I reach out and help somebody else.” This sense of pride and ownership in the revitalization of the West End, combined with the role Harambee plays in the youth’s families’ lives through the program, ensures that Harambee feels like home to the community. “Not only is it the kids being a part of this program, we walk alongside the families,” Jeffrey says, “we are not just here to provide..a job, or money…the biblical prospect of it all is that we want you to understand not only dignity and work, but what it means to be a family.”
How can you help?
There is a waiting list of more than 150 students hoping for a spot. Even for those youth already in the program, the number who can work on any given work site is reduced for social distancing, and the vans must hold fewer students than the normal 15.
Other limitations on the program come from the physical space of the office, the number of vans to drive the youth out to the job sites, tools for the jobs, and the distance of projects — if an afterschool program only has a few hours per day to do work, a longer driving time means less real work accomplished, so Harambee is limited to the West End neighborhoods where it was born. You can help by providing funding, or reach out to see if there are any tools or supplies that might be needed.
But what would be most helpful, Jeffrey says, is “for organizations to look at our model and say this works.. that others can see our model, duplicate it, and start reaching kids in communities that we can’t reach. Or even our kids – we have 150 kids on our waiting list, even to come alongside and start a similar organization, [so] that we can reach kids in this neighborhood.”
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