When Justin was in elementary school, he and his family left Maine and moved to the Bronx. “I had a couple of friends, but I’ve always been the observer — quiet and walking behind everyone else – watching and listening.” School in a big city was tough for Justin — he remembers being bullied, often about the color of his skin. The bullying led to fights, and soon he dreaded going to school each day.
In middle school, he continued to face challenges with his peers, but found that he also wasn’t getting the kind of personalized attention he needed from his teachers. He began skipping school to avoid it all and found connection on the streets instead. After failing 6th grade, then 7th grade multiple times, the NY school system forced him to skip 8th grade and enroll in an alternative high school so he’d be with students closer to his age. He describes the school as being made up of teens with vastly different experiences — like him, some had been held back in middle school, others had been in and out of rehab or had been incarcerated, while others were pregnant. The school was in a different part of the Bronx than Justin’s home, so he had to navigate new trains to get there. This meant he was on new turf, something he quickly realized when he found out that many of his peers were also gang members. He didn’t feel safe at school and continued to feel unmotivated and unsupported by his teachers. At 17 years old, he decided to drop out.
Justin continued to spend time on the streets. To fit in, he did things he says he’s not proud of, but he found there were more people willing to help him than there had been in educational facilities. “I matured and grew more from my time being outside on the streets than I did being inside at a school. By observing, I began to understand other people and their perspectives. I started to learn how to motivate myself instead of needing someone else to do it for me. But I also saw a lot of death and struggles. I realized I didn’t want to end up in that situation. Seeing all of this motivated me to make a change and do something more with my life. When my Mom suggested we move back to Maine, I took her up on the offer and we left the city.”
During the first few months that Justin and his Mom were in Maine, they lived in hotels while the city helped them find an apartment. His Mom encouraged him to enroll in high school but Justin had no interest as he figured it would be the same as it had been in the Bronx. But then one of Justin’s cousins told him about the LearningWorks YouthBuild program. He and his Mom looked at the website to learn more and he decided to apply that day from their hotel room. He got in.
“I didn’t trust the teachers at first. I tested them to see if they could relate to me. I asked questions or did certain things to see how they’d react and how they’d handle it. I also observed how they talked to other kids. I wanted to see if they treated us equally. After these tests, I realized that the teachers actually care – that they worry about their students, and actually want us all to be able to grow. I started trusting them pretty quickly after that because I realized they were present, organized and ready to support us. I saw that they had a plan for me.”
“At LearningWorks they are getting young adults actually ready for real life. I’m experiencing construction – learning how to build houses and window boxes for flowers, vegetables, and herbs, gaining culinary skills so that I can cook for myself, learning about meditation, and doing community service projects. I’m taking Hi-Set tests to further my education and receiving lots of personalized support and guidance to get me ready for these exams. LearningWorks cleared my mind and then opened me up to many options for what I can accomplish in my life.”
Since graduating this Spring, Justin has started a full-time construction job that he loves. He’s been given lots of responsibility, respect, and trust. Like his Youth Build cohort, there is loyalty and honesty among his team. Outside of work, he’s putting time into pursuing his creative interests in photography and music production.
Not long ago, Justin wrote something down on a scrap of paper that he carries around with him. It says: “‘I’m thankful for whatever left, whatever stayed, and whatever is here right now.’”
“To me, the quote means: I’m thankful for the problems that left my life and are in the past, I’m grateful for those who stayed by my side, and I’m grateful that I’m here now – prevailing in my own life.”
Photo and story by Molly Haley.