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St. Gabe's Boys Make Big Waves with Recent Home Reconstruction

Thirty-five boys from St. Gabriel's Hall spent the first half of the year demolishing and rebuilding a local home.

Prestigious members of the Montgomery County community gathered Tuesday morning to celebrate the completion of the latest project from the YouthBuild program—a house at 249 E. Chestnut St.

Genesis Housing Corporation in Norristown recently purchased the 125-year-old home and offered it to the YouthBuild program to renovate and restore.

According to the organization's website, the Genesis Housing Corporation aims to “revitalize neighborhoods by improving housing for existing and future homeowners.” The corporation reaches this goal by renovating old homes, building new ones and providing classes to the Norristown and Pottstown communities to educate members on housing and homeownership.

Though the house was the fourth the YouthBuild program considered for renovation this year, it was most certainly the best fit.

“This one sold itself,” said site coordinator Kirk Yarnall.

With spacious yards on both sides of the home leaving plenty of room for construction and noise, its location off the street, and its placement in a quiet neighborhood, the house was ideal for what YouthBuild needed.

YouthBuild is a national “youth and community development program” that “addresses core issues facing low-income communities,” according to the organization's website.

“In YouthBuild programs, low-income young people ages 16-24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills and serve their communities by building affordable housing, and transform their own lives and roles in society,” the site states.

Norristown YouthBuild director Denise Collins said of the program, “[It has an] emphasis on leadership and community service.”

According to Collins, there are over 19,000 units of housing that have been created by YouthBuild programs throughout the country. More than 92,000 at-risk youth have been involved in the YouthBuild program across the United States, and there are over 250 active chapters of the organization around America.

Collins said this is the county’s second year of involvement with the program, and there is a great deal of interest in continuing into a third.

The Norristown YouthBuild program is specifically based out of Audubon’s St. Gabriel’s Hall, a long-term, multi-service residential program for delinquent male youth. St. Gabe’s accepts males ages 10 to 18 throughout the year, and each youth is assigned a length-of-stay.

Quarmiir Trice, who has been at St. Gabe’s for 13 months and will be leaving later this month, spoke briefly about his time at St. Gabe’s. He laughed, commenting he could write a book on all the experiences he’d had and lessons he’s learned during his time there.

“It was a good learning project,” he said. “[It was] encouraging to do better.”

Members of YouthBuild from St. Gabe’s underwent OSHA safety training in January, some online and some in-person with Yarnall, whose job as site coordinator takes up only six months of his year.

Yarnall spends the other half of the year in the classroom at St. Gabe’s. After more than 25 years of independent construction work, he started at St. Gabe’s before last year’s YouthBuild house project.

Why the switch?

“I just enjoy the kids,” Yarnall said, smiling. “[The kids] are why I do this.”

After he trained them, Yarnall led his group of 35 to Chestnut Street to begin the work. What work was there to do, exactly?

“Everything,” according to Yarnall.

This year’s project was a wall-to-floor, complete reconstruction of the four-level historic home.

The list of YouthBuild accomplishments in the home included demolition, stair building (in the basement), framing (of the walls and ceiling in the three above-ground floors), support post and beam construction, insulation (fiberglass and rigid), drywall installation, drywall finishing, interior and exterior door installation, parging of the basement walls, floor leveling, painting, brick patch work, and work on window extension jambs, window and door casings, and the coped corners of the baseboards.

According to St. Gabe’s students, they were split into groups and transported to the house via van. Different groups worked with Yarnall on different days. A work day at the house ran from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Trice, who cut the ribbon with Montgomery County Workforce Investment Board (WIB) Chairman Harvey Portner, said he went to the house at least once per week.

“It was fun. Lot of hard work,” he said about the project.

While Trice’s favorite part of the project was the framing work, another of St. Gabe’s students enjoyed the overall experience. Matthew Pettit’s favorite part of the YouthBuild house was “seeing it when it [was] done.”

Fellow student Jahlil Collier agreed.

“I would like to buy this house myself,” he said.

Both Collier and Trice said after their time at St. Gabe’s come to an end this summer, they both plan to attend community college in Philadelphia.

All 35 members of the work team convened with school leaders and pillars of the Norristown community at the renovated home on Tuesday morning to celebrate the achievement of the boys in their work.

Portner addressed the crowd briefly before the ribbon cutting, encouraging the students to continue their educations and find purpose. He stressed the need for them all to find things they love and things they can do well.

“You’re important to us,” he told them.

Portner not only serves as WIB’s chairman, but he is also the president of the board of directors of the Visiting Nurse Associations in Abington and Elkins Park and the president of the board of commissioners in La Mott, West Elkins Park and Wyncote.

Also in attendance was PECO Regional External Affairs Manager Suzanne Ryan. PECO recently granted $15,000 to St. Gabriel’s Hall for the school to purchase SMART Boards.

“It was nice to do another partnership,” she said.

PECO has previously been involved with WIB, but this is its first year with direct involvement in YouthBuild.

The boys may be finished with  this year’s YouthBuild project, but no one involved in the project is sad to see it end. The house made a tremendous impact on the boys as they left their impact on it, and everyone is looking to the future.

St. Gabe’s will be awarding many of its youth high school diplomas later this month. Several of the youth involved were already offered work with affiliates of the project, and many are looking forward to moving on from St. Gabe’s to bright futures.

Trice admitted how nervous he is to be leaving later this month, but expressed a great deal of excitement at the prospect of moving forward.

The program hopes to continue its unprecedented success next year with a third house, but is facing harsh funding cuts. The coordinators of the program are currently seeking alternative methods of funding for next year’s project.

For more information, or to find out how you can help to keep such a wonderful program going, email director Denise Collins at dcollins@mc3.edu.

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