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Real Michiana: Building character brick by brick

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- This edition of Real Michiana takes you to Benton Harbor, where a construction manager is helping students with troubled pasts build more than homes, but character brick by brick.

“Dave, well I thought he was going to be like the mean type," said Jashawn Gaines, a YouthBuild participant.

His peers just thought "he's a big guy" and "kind of weird" when they first met their construction training manager, Dave Orr.

Dave says he was just interested to see how they would all get along.

“These kids, they come to us with a lot of issues. They’re very closed. They don’t want to talk to you," said Dave Orr.

The participants in YouthBuild are either high school dropouts, former offenders, or even just low income.

To check out the ribbon cutting of the latest home the group built, click here.

“It’s not easy, because some people have been through a lot of stuff that make them get into a shell," said Jashawn.

“You’re with them for a couple, three weeks, and they start opening up," said Dave.

Dave first got involved with Benton Harbor's chapter of YouthBuild after retiring from the military.

“I was... in the Air Force…decided that I would get into contracting…The last few years when I was in the Air Force, I actually was doing something quite similar. We had what was called self-help...Well the workers that I got, they were troubled...They had made some mistakes in the military...and then they worked with me for a year and they turned their life around, it was great!...so when I got this opportunity to go into YouthBuild..it was quite similar," said Orr.

“Just because I came from somewhere that’s not that good, I still want to be better than that," said Jashawn.

“It’s not about what we actually build. It’s building character in them and showing them the right way," said Dave.

He says construction provides a great outlet to foster that character-building, because it shows students they can do something they never would have tried if they put their mind to it.

“When they’re shown the little details and exactly how to do it, they find out real quick that I can do this, and it’s a confidence builder, it really is, and that’s what they need," said Dave.

In working with Dave, the students discovered their first impressions couldn't have been further from the truth.

“It makes me feel important, special to know that you have someone who didn’t even know us and just took us under his wing, and is willing to do anything for us...We’re like his kids, and he’s like a father figure to us," said Phantaysha Johnson.

“I must be doing something right!...That’s one of the things that I always say: if I say I’m going to do something for them, I’m absolutely going to do that for them. I always follow through, never leave them hanging, because a lot of people do...and that’s what the YouthBuild program is really about, helping the overall person,” said Dave.

“I learned you got to be patient," said Jasmine Bibbs, a YouthBuild participant.

And Dave says he's learned the same.

"And then insight into their lives, because the environment that they grew up in. I didn’t grow up in that environment…if you give them the right opportunities, they shine through, same way, they really do.”

"Never ever ever in a lifetime he was going to be like that, but now I know when people tell me not to judge a book by its cover to go check It out before I say something," said Jashawn.

Since Kinexus launched YouthBuild in Benton Harbor in 2008, they've had 291 participants, many of whom have found employment after going through the program.

If you'd like to volunteer, you can contact Caleb Weeks at WeeksC@Kinexus.org.

To submit nominations for our next Real Michiana feature, please email Jess at jarnold@abc57.com.

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