Grit alone is no longer enough

Groups like YouthBuild prep for influx of young people in need

I DROPPED OUT of high school at the age of 17 after immigrating to Massachusetts from the Dominican Republic. School was just too hard for me, and there was not enough support to keep me there. I struggled for a while as I worked at a low-wage job and spent too much time just hanging around. Eventually, there came a point when I recognized that if I didn’t take concrete steps to better myself, I could lose out on a great future. So I decided to enroll in the YouthBuild program at North Shore Community Development Coalition in the El Punto neighborhood of Salem, where I obtained my high-school diploma and gained leadership and job training. It was the best decision I ever made. After completing the program, I was offered a staff position as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service program funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. My job, and my passion, is to help young people like myself find their way forward.

My story is not unique. Hundreds of young people across Massachusetts come to local YouthBuild programs to reconnect themselves to education and career training. Their determination, combined with love and support from staff, gets them to the finish line and motivates them to continue their success in professional life. But COVID-19 and the economic downturn have devastated our communities and erased local job opportunities that were once within reach. Sheer determination is no longer enough to build a future. This reversal — of philosophy, of sheer logistics — is a huge pill to swallow for myself and the young people I work with every day.

The majority of our students are minorities who come from low-income households that are unstable or unpredictable, and their daily life is also spent navigating inequity and racial injustice. Some are young parents, several are experiencing homelessness, others are separated from their families and in the custody of the state’s Department of Children and Families. But what they all have in common is a desire to transform their lives through education, employment, and service. In normal circumstances, we know how to guide their reconnection to a high-school diploma, GED, workforce training, leadership development and an apprenticeship. It’s a tall order, but their determination led the way. Now, a pandemic has put the brakes on their momentum — and it may derail their futures altogether.

It is heartbreaking to realize that the reason I and thousands of other opportunity youth were able to succeed — sheer determination, a force of will — is no longer enough. I was six months into my new job at YouthBuild when COVID-19 changed my mission from helping YouthBuild alumni thrive to helping them survive. We are no longer planning for their future years in advance; we’re taking it day by day. While my time used to be spent placing graduates in jobs and networking with business owners, I am now connecting my peers with resources like rent assistance, food pantries, and other financial supports. Several students are worried about the health and wellness of their own children and struggling with a lack of childcare. Isolation is taking a toll on their mental health — and they are losing their hard-earned sense of hope.

Our students and alumni have worked so hard to put themselves on a positive path, and this crisis throws a huge wrench in our ability to keep them safe and focused on their goals. Without a tangible community of support, they may not ever develop the skill sets and mindsets that lead to long-term professional and personal success. They may never recover their full sense of what they are capable of. They may give up completely.

Coronavirus and the economic fallout are not the first barriers we’ve had to face. Our backgrounds, laced with trauma and poverty, have knocked us down enough to know what it takes to get back up. We’ve persisted despite racism and systems built to keep us out. We have grit, determination, and resilience. We know we need to work hard to earn the future we see for ourselves. But in this national health crisis, grit is not enough.

The number of opportunity youth — people aged 16 to 24 who are disconnected from school and work — will swell because of coronavirus’ impact, and programs like mine across the country don’t have the resources to serve everyone who will need us.

Meet the Author

Katherine Castillo

Alumni engagement VISTA, YouthBuild
My colleagues and I are doing everything we can to prevent our current students, future students, and alumni from drowning during this crisis. This population — my peers — have been ignored for long enough. I hope my story sheds some light on what is at stake.

Katherine Castillo is a YouthBuild Alumni Engagement VISTA at North Shore Community Development Coalition’s YouthBuild program in Salem. She is also a graduate of that program.