YouthBuild Louisville: A Graduate, Instructor and Family Structure

by Stephanie Zerweck
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YouthBuild Louisville, in Louisville, Ky., opened with its inaugural class in 2001.  Among those first enrolled was area resident DeMarcus Keene.  However, his graduation would be some years in the making, informed by difficult personal experiences that left their collective mark on his trajectory.

Photo courtesy of YouthBuild Louisville

A Student’s Legacy

Despite his initial desire to use YouthBuild to catapult himself into productivity, personal growth and prosperity for starting his own family, he said, he couldn’t leave street life—and its pitfalls—behind.

“I just stopped going [to class],” said Keene, “because [of] some trauma—my cousin died, a whole bunch of other stuff, …I became homeless.”

Before he could leave his mark on the YB Louisville program, Keene said, he first had to get out of his own way.  After nearly three years, he did.

Returning to the program in 2004, Keene graduated in 2005.  During his time within the program, according to YB Louisville Director Lynn Rippy, Keene demonstrated self-reflectiveness, energy, inquisitiveness and a desire to lead other students.

Keene’s graduation was commemorated with him earning YB Louisville’s Marsha Weinstein Award, the “strongest leadership” award they offer, said Rippy, for his success within the local program—an accompanying $500 scholarship, he spent on the tools of his trade to immediately enter his field.

All In the (Industry) Details

“He did one year—a fulltime year—of AmeriCorps with us after he graduated,” said Rippy.  From there, Keene accepted a variety of external, industry positions.

More common as a cultural standard of builders on construction worksites of decades past than in current year, workers would often leave their initials, a then-current newspapers or other small “relics” as a type of time capsule for a build.

“As we build houses,” said Rippy, “we always let our students or ask our students to leave their mark behind and one of the things that DeMarcus always did was sign every board that he could to make sure that he left his permanent mark on the house, underneath the drywall.”

According to HBI Associate Vice President of Certification & Training Stephen Cousins, responsible for the development of HBI’s Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training (PACT) curriculum now used by YB Louisville, builders do leave a mark, but it’s usually of architectural significance versus signing a foundation scratching in their initials into the framework—that transference of skill is one expected result of the training Keene has received from HBI.

“When that student is ready to leave, [and] you’re thinking, ‘I would hire that kid if I had a job opening,’ as an instructor—that’s when you know you’ve done a good job,” said Cousins.  “The other good thing is, after a student leaves–could be a year, could be six months, could be less time–when a student drives up in their own personal car, shows you their most recent check and is just beaming with success and pride and self-esteem.”

An Educator’s Signature

Now, an educator, Keene returned to YB Louisville as its Construction Manager after a series of other industry jobs.  Even with signing of barns, gazebos and other structures still abundant, Keene’s value is reflected in the “architecture” of family he’s helped to reinforce—the family-style culture established through his teaching and openness about his past, the instructors he’s responsible for hiring and the projects he’s leading, including a new student residence.

“We purchased a property about a block away from our campus and we’re turning it into a home that will have four bedrooms,” said Rippy. “Three will be double-occupancy bedrooms and then one is for an adult leader.  It’s for young people who are housing-insecure and need a place to stay while they’re in YouthBuild [Louisville].”

According to Rippy, Keene’s latest class includes 18 students returned after initial COVID-19 pandemic closures, and another 12 set for September 2020, who’ve received orientation, with on-site classes ranging 6-8 for social-distancing purposes.

Keene said, his family now consists of his four children and wife, as well as students, staff and graduates of the YB Louisville program.  He hopes to create the level of support for his YB Louisville family that he experienced.

“I knew, without anything, I could come back here and get help,” said Keene.  “If it’s help finding a job, if it’s help paying a bill, help getting food in the refrigerator, they made a place that we [could] come, so that it would be easy to transition after [graduating].”

In August of 2020, Keene was recognized again with his most recent awards for Instructor of the Year via both local and national programs.

by Stephanie Zerweck
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Lougwin Spann entered HBI’s program at Sheridan Correctional Center, in Sheridan, Ill., in 2014, during a three-year prison term. The Chicago native returned to the facility on September 12, 2019—this time to speak before a congregation of government, church and business leaders, and later in the day, current program participants themselves, about his successful completion of the center’s drug rehabilitation and HBI residential construction trades programs and current employment as a roofer. Having exchanged the title of “inmate” for that of “guest” as part of the facility’s open house, Spann acknowledged the visibility on the road to this change didn’t begin so clearly.

Photo by Joe Hoffman, Hoffman Media Inc.

Finding Shelter at HBI

Spann said, at HBI, he found an environment in which he could thrive.

“Everything that helped me get to where I had to go, I did it,” said Spann. “HBI, Mr. Ricky, Ms. Bonnie, Mr. Eike, they were there. Chief Robinson was there for me, you know, this whole institution gave me an opportunity- Well, it gave me- It gave me a kick-start.”

At the HBI program, Spann said, he was offered continuity in that he had everything to work with, the same as he would be working with out in the world. The program also uniquely encouraged the growth of his confidence through in his performance and ability to help other students.

”You’re working with saws, you’re working with tape measures–you’re working with all different types of tools,” said Spann. “That’s pretty much all I’ve did all my life is work with my hands, and they gave me an opportunity to come inside and do that.”

However, Spann stressed that just because HBI offered a supportive environment, it wasn’t easy.

“Don’t think that you’re going to run out and kick-it with your guys, ‘cuz you’re at HBI,” said Spann. “No, no, no, no, no, they didn’t play that. You either want it or you can move on.”

Spann looks forward to others replicating his success.

“It could help a lot of guys who want it, said Spann. “[.…] You come in here, you see all the staff members and whatnot trying to help you. It could help them, besides just being locked away all day. It’d be a chance to get out and learn something. Cutting wood—some guys may enjoy cutting wood now. So, now, they’re going to go home and take their HBI certificate and OSHA that Mr. Eike and Ms. Bonnie wrote up for them and [a potential employer might say] ‘oh, you been gone a little while, but you been doing something, huh? And Give him a shot.”

According to HBI President and CEO Ed Brady, the industry has 350,000 vacancies to be able to do just that.

Sheathing Before Shingling

Now a union roofer for Knickerbockers, the second largest roofing company in the State of Illinois, Spann was quick to respond, “the pay,” when asked about his favorite thing about his current job. According to him, the key difference between his final incarceration and times previous was the intentionality of his steps and mindset, formed by his desire to succeed.

“I was received with open arms, because the guy that left wasn’t the guy that came back. My behavior in the past on the roofing was a “ground zero.” My behavior today on my job is way up and plus, because I have some positive thinking. I think positive about my job, I treasure my job.”

Not even his first post-Sheridan position, before working for Knickerbocker, Spann was employed at General Motors in 2015 as a forklift operator—a multi-feat of employment not typically easy for those identified as having a criminal record.

“I had the opportunity in 2004, I just didn’t apply the right principles to keep going,” said Spann of the training he received. “But, when I got here to Sheridan in 2012, I was burnt up, I was done. I needed help. I found help being here for three years and I took it. And now, not being [at Sheridan], I use it every day.”

With a passion to save lives, once he’s done with roofing, Spann wants to help counsel Sheridan residents, like those in HBI’s residential construction trades program, as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (CADAC).

“Who can talk about recovery more than me? I’ve been there, I done it. But, when you come in a program where you can get help and you try it on, and you want it–you’ve got to want it from your gut—and you want it, it’ll pan out just fine, yes it will.”

Spann emphasized that he’s not alone at his current height of successful thinking or career placement.

“There’s a lot of guys out there doing well,” said Spann. “It just so happened that I was one of them who stayed in contact with Sheridan. A lot of guys go out and just say, ‘forget it, I’m doing good.’ That’s cool too, on their level. But, on my level, I stayed in contact with the HBI people. They helped me out. Some students who go out and don’t do what they’re supposed to do, but the ones who come in here, such as myself, there are more of us out there.”

by Stephanie Zerweck


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United States Army Sergeant 1st Class Kareem Mills graduated from HBI’s Transitioning Military Program, Fort Stewart location, on December 13, 2019. However, just as “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” this modern, American, The Home Depot Foundation-sponsored centurion didn’t arrive at his ultimate career overnight.

Stage 1 – Early Planning

Mills said carpentry has been a part of nearly his whole life—first with his uncle, a trained carpenter, and his mother, a self-taught carpenter, by-way-of progressively more intricate do-it-yourself projects.

“She is the first female that I [had] ever seen in my life that was doing what men pretty much normally do—way back when I was eight, nine, 10 years old,” said Mills. “And the funny part is, I hated it, because my house was always a mess and […] a construction zone, so I really wasn’t able to bring my friends over. It was, ‘don’t step here, don’t go here,’ but, you know, at the end, when the project was complete, the bathroom was completely remodeled, the kitchen was awesome, and she did everything herself.”

Barely able to carry a box of tiles, Mills remembered helping his mother and not only how that influenced his career interests, but his ability to later renovate his own house and his sister’s career trajectory as a real estate agent.

Stage 2 – Budgeting (Time)

Budgeting for time spent in the military, he originally wanted to see the world beyond his then-Brooklyn, New York, home. Enlisting at the age of 19, Mills spent roughly 23 years in the military, much of the time as a drill sergeant. During that time, he and his wife had three children—now aged 4, 10 and 16. While planning for his impending retirement, Mills determined he didn’t want to have another nine-to-five job—he wanted the ability to be available as a parent.

“They’re in a lot of stuff—sports, a lot of after-school activities and I want to be there and participate and go to functions for my kids,” said Mills.

This in mind, at the age of 42, Mills enrolled in HBI’s 12-week-long Department of Defense (DoD) SkillBridge Program—known in the Army as Soldier For Life Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP). Offered in service members’ last 180 days in the military, the program helps those soon to separate or retire from the military train for a civilian career. In the case of HBI’s Transitioning Military Program, this also includes career placement.

“Once I started the retirement process and I went through SLF-TAP,” said Mills, “and I started learning about the [career skills programs], and they had a program for carpentry, I immediately knew that that’s what I was going to do. I just figured, it’s a more structured program that would pretty much sharpen the skills that I already have and that I’ve already developed.”

During his time in the program, Mills worked towards the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s certifications in OSHA-10 and OSHA-30, as well as, those for electrical and carpentry trades—a career in renovation and remodeling always on his mind.

“The hands-on. I enjoyed the hands-on. Once we got to the hands-on portion, to me, it was just natural. Like I said, I’ve had experience, so using the tools and cutting wood and doing things of that nature, it was just natural. It didn’t feel like work for me, so. But, to have that instructor behind you, giving you little tidbits of information and little corners here and there, it just made whatever I didn’t know before HBI, it just made it stick even more, because now I have someone who’s even more experienced than I am giving me [the best way] and teaching me things, so it made it much easier for me to remember all that I learned going forward.”

Stages 3-5 – Demolition, Construction, Final Touches

Ending his military career with retirement from the military, Mills intends to go into home renovation and remodeling, changing more than his career in the process.

Emblematic of Mills’—and other graduates’—career change, guest speakers at his graduation included Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield Command U.S. Army Garrison Sergeant Major Rebecca M. Myers, as well NAHB Third Vice Chairman of the Board Jerry Konter and Home Builders Association of Georgia retired President Lamar Smith.

“You make a living out of what you get,” said Smith. “You make a life out of what you give.”

For Mills, part of the giving has been a continuation of service in the form of information and advocacy on behalf of the HBI program to other transitioning soldiers, including at least one stationed as far as South Korea.

“Depending on who I’m talking to and what it is that they dabble in, I have a few avenues that I can talk about, because the program is so robust.”

In the renovation and remodeling profession, carpenters may find themselves restoring a structure to the image of its past or giving it new life by altering to a new form. For Mills, in teaching his children as he was taught as a child, and now as an adult, he’s looking forward to a bit of both.

With plans to first stay local to the base’s Savannah, Ga.-area, Mills was hired by JGCM Enterprises LLC owner Jason Gillespie. Mills said, he and his wife—also a business owner—are strong advocates for teaching their children to go into business for themselves, so he wants to help pave the way for his children by next starting his own business. According to Mills, it allows him to somewhat replicate what his mother did for him.

“We moved around a lot, and every home we lived in, she was doing something to the house, she was renovating it, making it better,” said Mills. “Now that I’m able to do those types of things on my own [it’s] just awesome.”

by Stephanie Zerweck
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YouthBuild Louisville, in Louisville, Ky., opened with its inaugural class in 2001.  Among those first enrolled was area resident DeMarcus Keene.  However, his graduation would be some years in the making, informed by difficult personal experiences that left their collective mark on his trajectory.

Education at all Costs

Gastelum graduated in 2013 from the Plumbing program at the Fred G. Acosta Job Corps Center in Tucson, Ariz. Prior to that, he overcame significant challenges, including childhood homelessness, to achieve professional success.

Eager to learn and enter the field, according to his Job Corps instructor, Fabian Liera, Gastelum showed remarkable motivation, both completing his General Education Development (GED) diploma and finishing training in his trade by the age of 17.

Too young to yet to work in the field, Gastelum began training for Skills USA competitions, taking home first place in regional and state competitions. Then qualified to compete in the post-secondary national championship, he won second place against four-year apprenticeship opponents. However, he sacrificed the possibility of winning a first-place prize the following year in order to accelerate his career-start to be able to secure a home for his mother and two sisters.

Meanwhile, Diaz-Medina, later to become a 2015 graduate of HBI, was studying within her Electrical program at the Tongue Point Job Corps Center in Astoria, Ore.

According to her instructor, Jim Kalmbach, while at Job Corps, Diaz-Medina was a stellar student—truly a standout in her trades training, her academic performance and her commitment to helping others, lending them a voice, an ear and a hand.

Described by Job Corps staff as “mature, capable and motivated,” Diaz-Medina used her academic abilities to tutor students in math, her bilingual fluency in serving as a representative on the Student Government Association Executive Council and her pleasant demeanor volunteering in the community.

“Blanca was shop foreman at the time of her graduation and took the lead on many Center projects,” said Jim Kalmbach.

Diaz-Medina relied 100 percent on the strengths of her skill and character in her leadership roles.

These same strengths of character helped see her through lifelong obstacles presented by her status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. One week shy of acquiring her commercial driver’s license while enrolled in Job Corps, Diaz-Medina’s driving permit was canceled, due to her immigration status. Rather than deter her, Diaz-Medina used setbacks as motivation to propel her forward into her electrical trade career.

A Foothold in the Field

Having now worked in the trades for roughly seven years, Gastelum has held positions with Brewer Enterprises, TAZ plumbing and Mr. Rooter—his excellent reputation following him to each company.

“Most companies will not allow anyone under 21 to drive their company vehicles, due to insurance coverage,” said Liera. “They all made an exception with Miguel. […] I have personally received my share of calls from various employers, asking if I have another Miguel.”

Beyond becoming one of the highest-paid technicians in the City of Tucson and holding “Employee of the Month” and “First Place in Sales and Customer Service” titles over the years, Gastelum has already achieved what he considers his most significant accomplishment to date. In May of 2018, he started his own business, MG Plumbing, after years of saving.

Like Gastelum’s road to success, Diaz-Medina’s has been marked by accomplishment—earning “Apprentice of the Year” awards in her position with SME Inc. of Seattle and her Construction Industry Training Council (CITC) of Washington apprenticeship at that same job. At the time of IBS 2020 Diaz-Medina was less than 400 hours shy of completing her Journeyman Apprenticeship. She currently works at Premier Power Electric.

With all these events building to a moment, as much as to their careers, Gastelum and Diaz-Medina took the stage to sounds of NAHB audience applause at the 2020 Orlando-based IBS event, accepting $1,000-checks and admiration of builders nation-wide, along with their awards.