Soon after his mother died in 2009, Gilbert Leyba said he started drinking and experimenting with drugs.
He then dropped out of high school, watching his life spiral into turmoil.
“I was having a really hard time,” said Leyba, now 24. “My mind was all over the place.”
But then, Leyba learned about YouthWorks — a local nonprofit dedicated to helping teens and young adults find a path to self-sufficiency.
His life, he said, has never been the same. Since signing up, Leyba said he has earned several vocational certifications, found independent housing and is working to obtain his GED diploma.
Others tell similar stories at Youthworks, a nearly 18-year-old organization that recently earned a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to renew its YouthBuild program. It’s one of many projects that blends education with vocational skills and assists “disconnected youth” with discovering their potential.
The funding “brings $1 million directly into the local economy that helps youth skill up,” said Melynn Schuyler, YouthWorks founder and executive director.
Many who’ve joined YouthWorks say the programs have helped them become more stable and more employable in their late teens and early 20s.
“YouthWorks has helped me, in general, to be a better person,” said 22-year-old Aaron Garcia, currently enrolled in a filmmaking apprenticeship with one of YouthWorks’ partners, Littleglobe. “I wouldn’t be who I am without YouthWorks. … And now, because of it, I have more opportunity.”
Programs offered through YouthWorks include two- to four-month internships at local businesses; training on how to protect forests and watersheds; community-based involvement for adjudicated youth; training in culinary arts and catering, and Santa Fe YouthBuild.
YouthBuild was first implemented in 2011 and ran for three sessions. After a one-year gap in 2018, organizers say they’re excited to re-establish the two-year program, which will give more than 60 students the opportunity for paid employment with Habitat for Humanity.
Although those who come to YouthWorks have different interests and backgrounds, every one of them has experienced “some level of marginalization,” said Schuyler.
About 1,200 young people annually come through the nonprofit’s doors on Cerrillos Road, she said. They include homeless teens looking for housing assistance, high school dropouts hoping to complete their education, juvenile delinquents in need of judicial resources and disadvantaged — but motivated — individuals wanting to kick-start their professional careers.
Schuyler said the overarching goal is the same: Create a better future.
Garcia, who dropped out of high school and spent the aftermath “just being a bum” at the skate park in Española, said he now has dreams of going to college and pursuing a career in filmmaking.
“This is what I want to do,” he said. “I want to go to college for this.”
Rudy Vigil, 20, said that since coming to YouthWorks, he feels more confident and hopes to one day become an environmental technician.
In just a year’s time, Vigil said he’s earned several certificates, including first aid and CPR, has completed 180 hours of Environmental Protection Agency training for disposal of hazardous waste. And he is currently collaborating with Habitat for Humanity to learn construction skills and build homes for low-income families in Santa Fe.
The most important quality he’s gained, however, is that he’s “more comfortable” with himself — personally and professionally, he said.
YouthWorks staff members say relationships are critical to making the program work, and the program tries to create a judgment-free environment where participants are comfortable.
“They come through the door, we ask them a few questions, and we give them help right there,” said Devin Baldwin, YouthWorks’ workforce and personnel engagement director.
At that point, YouthWorks simply acts as “a springboard,” he said.
“It really depends on you — if you really want to take your life to the next level,” said 21-year-old Antonio Romero, who enrolled in YouthWorks in 2015 after leaving home at 17. He now works with Habitat for Humanity. “If you want help, they’re here to help.”
Between 2015-18, more than 200 youth were placed in local apprenticeships; dozens have obtained their GED diplomas; and more than 200 have obtained unsubsidized employment, according to figures provided by the city of Santa Fe’s Economic Development Department.
But for participants to succeed, staff members say, they must first address “what didn’t work” in their lives.
For example, if a student left high school, “there’s a reason,” said Schuyler. “We don’t want to be a reason for another failure.”
Schuyler said YouthWorks tries to prioritize life skills. Often, guest speakers will lead discussions on managing finances, writing résumés, how to vote and other “current events happening that actually matter,” said Gilbert Leyba.
“I’ve learned a lot about life here,” he said.
Schuyler said this is her mission.
“We teach them, like family would, what their resources are before they fly from the nest,” she said.