The first time Hassan Foster stole a car, he drove off without any beginner’s luck. As he parked the vehicle on a Newark street, a police officer happened by, noticed his nervousness, and asked to see his driver’s license. A few minutes later, Foster was in handcuffs.
Had he stolen the car a week earlier, before his 18th birthday Foster likely would have received a slap on the wrist. But in the eyes of the law, he was a juvenile no longer, so he wound up in the Essex County jail. The two months he spent there meant he missed enough classes that he’d have to repeat his senior year of high school in order to graduate. Though he was a straight-B student and a member of the basketball team, he had no desire to spend the next year with younger kids.
So Foster headed down a well-worn path in Newark’s south ward: gang life, street crimes, drug addiction. “And, from there,” he says, “incarceration, incarceration, incarceration.”
When he wasn’t behind bars, he’d return to his old ways. One night, his best friend, with whom he sold drugs, went missing. Foster eventually found his buddy’s shot-up body in the backyard of an abandoned house. As he mourned, he grappled with thoughts of that could have easily been me. And he resolved to change his life.
Which is when he saw a flier at a neighbor’s house for an organization called YouthBuild that helps dropouts ages 16 to 24 get their high-school equivalency degree. Intrigued, he applied.
Then he learned there was a catch. Participants don’t just take GED classes; they also spend a year serving their communities, rebuilding dilapidated homes that are then sold at below-market prices to low-income families.
Foster was worried. He had no construction skills. “I’m used to destroying things,” he says. “Not fixing them.”
His initial weeks at the construction site – a row house that was to be gutted and rebuilt from the studs up – were daunting. “I wasn’t used to getting up and doing hard work.”
He often complained.
Do we have to do this again?
More drywall to hang?
Man, this is tedious.
Before long, though, he got the hang of hammering, sawing, drilling, and grouting. He excelled at the work. Instead of grousing, he took to saying, “Let me help you.”
Today, Foster is employed by Home Depot to work with professional contractors – a job he has held for eight years – and he is an attentive father to two daughters. If not for his time at YouthBuild, he says, “I wouldn’t be a tenth of the man I am. I don’t know if I’d even be alive.”
The credits for Foster’s transformation could roll for minutes. His own perseverance. His site foremen. His teachers. His fellow YouthBuild members. But he drew his most profound example from Robert Clark, the affable 45 year old who leads YouthBuild’s program in Newark.
“This man came from what I came from,” Foster says. “He showed me it could be done.”
Robert Clark is paying it forward in a remarkable way: He is the first YouthBuild graduate to lead a YouthBuild program in a major American city. He overcame a past of crime and addiction to help thousands of young people in a poor, violent urban community surmount their own obstacles and start new lives.
His journey has been a source of inspiration to many more than Foster. It motivates those who join YouthBuild in the city, and it has awed the program’s national leaders.
“Robert has made the choice to give back in every way that he can to change the conditions that are damaging other human beings,” says Dorothy Stoneman, the civil rights activist and educator who founded YouthBuild in 1978 in East Harlem, New York, and has shepherded the expansion of this remarkably successful general-education diploma program to 260 communities in 46 states.
Born in Boston, Clark grew up in public housing. When he was a young boy, his mother, who had struggled with drug addiction, died, and his grandmother sent him to live with a succession of relatives in Kentucky, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. He returned to his rough-and-tumble Boston neighborhood to attend high school, but dropped out during ninth grade and ran away from home.
“I didn’t really know what I was running from, or where I was running to, but I ran,” he recalls. “I was in search of who I was.”
The rest of his teenage years were a blur of heroin use, petty crime, drug dealing, and jail time.
His turnaround began soon after his 21st birthday, inside the Norfolk County Correctional Center, in the suburb of Dedham. He had just finished a game of handball with two older inmates when the conversation turned to what they planned to do when they got out. The older men talked about turning back to crime and drugs.
Twenty years from now, I don’t want to be one of these guys, Clark thought. I want to make something of my life.
The day he was released, he decided he wouldn’t go back to his old neighborhood, where he’d be seduced into using heroin again. He wandered the streets of Cambridge, eventually finding a bed in a Salvation Army homeless shelter. The next day, he checked himself into a drug treatment center.
One weekend, he spotted a buddy from his old neighborhood walking down the street with a tool belt buckled around his waist. “He had a different bop about him. He was talking different. His face was shining. He had a sense of purpose and electricity that I’d never seen before. And I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on with you?’”
His friend said he had joined a YouthBuild program in Boston. “Bobby, you should check it out,” he said.
Clark pleaded with his treatment counselor for permission to go. “It was a magical experience,” he says. “The interactions with staff, the discussions held by young people, the work – it was a different space from anything I knew.”
Clark joined YouthBuild, and he soon discovered skills that extended well beyond the ability to swing a hammer. One day, Stoneman brought a group of legislators to meet YouthBuild participants. Clark transfixed them as he recounted his teenage years and the role YouthBuild had played in helping him change course. A few weeks later, Stoneman asked Clark to fly to Washington to speak at a conference organized by the Children’s Defense Fund.
“He could communicate the reality of what young people faced so profoundly,” she says. She recalls that, at a different conference, arranged by a prominent urban affairs organization, he so outshone the group’s president that it refused to invite him to speak again.
After finishing the year-long YouthBuild program, Clark was accepted into Public Allies, a prestigious leadership-development service program that typically is the domain of college graduates, not GED recipients. That, in turn, led Clark to Newark, where he started studying at Rutgers University, with tuition covered by YouthBuild and some of the group’s well-heeled supporters who were awed by his commitment to helping others.
It was a spectacular journey, in just a few years, from the jail in Dedham. But for the first time since then he found himself on his own, without a network of support like he’d had at the drug treatment center, YouthBuild, or Public Allies.
During the winter break after his first term, because he had no place he called home, he stayed in his otherwise empty dormitory. Soon he grew bored. He hit the chilly streets, seeking a way to relieve his funk. He ended up at the Prince Street housing projects, a place where drugs were notoriously easy to come by.
“I found those things that had haunted me in the past,” he says.
He fell back into drugs. And that led to his arrest. But his benefactors refused to give up on him. Concerned, they called him and pledged to help him get back on his feet.
“There was no judgment. There was no, ‘You’ve disappointed us.’ And, ‘How could you waste our investment?’” he recalls with tears in his eyes. “There was unconditional love.”
After he was released from jail, he returned to Boston, where he re-entered the drug rehabilitation facility, completed college at the University of Massachusetts, and worked at the Boston Medical Center and the Boston Public Health Commission. A few years later, Stoneman reached out with an idea: YouthBuild would be expanding to Newark. Did he want to join the team that would set up the program?
He was nervous. “The last time I was in Newark, I fell flat on my face.” But he accepted the offer.
In 2003, he was tapped to serve as the executive director of the Newark program.
“His heart has always been filled with trying to make the world a better place,” she says. “He had a chance to join something that was structured to bring out the best in him, and so he blossomed, and then he said, ‘I’m gonna share this. I’m going to make it possible for as many people as possible to thrive.’”
Since the YouthBuild program was established in Newark in 2003, more than 2,500 people have completed a year-long construction service project and received their GEDs. More than 60 abandoned homes have been rebuilt and sold to low-income families.
“He’s helped to save lives,” Richard Roper, a member of Rutgers’s Board of Governors, says of Clark. YouthBuild has “become an important part of the social fabric of the city.”
Clark, however, sees more to be done. Instead of focusing exclusively on young people who have dropped out of high school, he is working with the Newark Public Schools on new measures to keep kids enrolled. Among them is a YouthBuild-influenced summer school built around service projects and team-building exercises meant to engage students who might otherwise end their education.
His emphasis on being present for young people extends to his own home. He has four children, and the youngest two – ages six and eight – live with him and his wife. Being an attentive father and husband, he says, “is as important as service to the community.”
He recently received approval from New Jersey officials to open the state’s first alternative-education charter school in Newark in 2017. The school, which will be open to people ages 16 to 21 who have dropped out, will combine job-training and service learning programs to teach the necessary skills to obtain a high school diploma.
In Newark, there are about 4,000 people of high school age who aren’t in school, according to Christopher Cerf, the city’s schools superintendent. He estimates that an additional 3,000 people ages 18 to 21 lack high school degrees.
“There are a lot of young people for whom the traditional school system doesn’t work,” Cerf says. “That’s why what Robert is doing, and what he is going to do for this city, is so important.”
On a sweltering morning this summer, Quanesha Reily walked into a row house three miles west of Newark’s airport, laced up her construction boots, and pushed a yellow hard hat down over her braided hair. Then, before starting to hang drywall in a second-floor bedroom, she gathered with a half-dozen fellow YouthBuild volunteers for their morning meeting, and a communal recital of the group’s philosophy.
“We recognize that, as young people, we are one of the greatest resources available to the survival of the community,” they said in unison. “Therefore, we stand ready and willing and hereby pledge our commitment to rebuild and improve the quality of life in our community through collective work…”
Four years ago, Reily dropped out of high school in her senior year, when she got pregnant and failed a state-mandated math exam. As her daughter grew into a toddler, she’d sit at home and think about her future.
I could be doing more, she told herself. I should have a career. But I need to finish high school.
Finding a way to do that seemed insurmountable. “I felt hopeless,” she recalls.
When she joined YouthBuild, her initial weeks were filled with doubt and despair. She questioned whether she would be able to hold her own at a construction site. But she refused to give up.
And soon enough, just as Hassan Foster turned a corner, so did she. The early starts, the manual labor, the power tools – they no longer scared her. She drew strength and confidence from the work.
“I began to realize that if I can do this, and this is not easy work, then I can get through more obstacles,” she says. “I can get through much more than this.”
Reily’s transformation, like that of so many other YouthBuild members in Newark, is inspired by Clark. The environment he has created. The forgiveness he demonstrates. The power of his example.
Clark, she says, “makes me think that nothing’s impossible.”