Tech Center Program Builds Community and Lives


It isn’t every day that you hear an entire class of students say they can’t wait to get to school because what they are learning isn’t just meaningful, but life-changing. That is the consensus of students in the YouthBuild program at The Tech Center at PNW BOCES.

YouthBuild, an international nonprofit organization that helps out-of-school, unemployed young people finish their education, gain the skills they need for employment, and become leaders in their communities by helping rebuild them, was introduced to the Tech Center last year, and the students, ages 16 to 24, say the positive impact it has made on their lives is powerful.

“This program has given me a second chance for a better future,” said Marc O’Neill, from Carmel. Fellow student Willie Rogers, from Peekskill, agreed. “We are learning new skills as well as responsibility and independence every day,” he said. “It is an amazing program!”

The students have been learning masonry, carpentry and tiling skills so that they can renovate a community building in Peekskill. This is the second cohort of students; the first finished the program in April. While the new cohort began only a month ago, students are already reaping its benefits.

In addition to learning construction skills, students also earn their TASC, or high school equivalency diploma. Tech Center teacher Erik Cantamessa teaches the students carpentry, masonry and “all different types of construction skills,” he said. Tech teacher Ron Freyer teaches them the academic skills they need to get their TASC diploma, so students are ready to enter the workforce upon completion of the program.

BOCES’ Coordinator of Adult Education, Alyson Trudeau, said the program is going exceptionally well because of both teacher dedication and student enthusiasm. “For some of the participants, this grant has given them the opportunity to make a change in the right direction,” she said.

Courtney Babu from Carmel, said, “It is helping me get something better in life, teaching me to work hard, and I am learning new things all the time.”

Victor Gonzalez, from Peekskill, said, “The program provides us with a second opportunity and gives us the chance to really do something with our lives.” Tech Center Director Cathy Balestrieri said the staff and students in the program share a special commitment. “The team we have assembled to work with our YouthBuild participants is committed to the success of every student and understands the unique challenges they face. Students recognize and appreciate the efforts and dedication of the team.”

Prior to beginning YouthBuild, students participate in a two-week “boot camp,” where they learn team-building skills in a closely knit community of students and teachers.

“The purpose of the boot camp is to rebuild what their idea of education is,” said Freyer, a retired Army Sergeant First Class who also prepares students for their TASC diploma. “Our real goal is to have them work together in team-building activities and see how important that aspect of work is.”

In addition to classroom learning and on-the-job construction work, students also get to hear from guest speakers, including union reps and construction managers, who come and speak to them.

Students earn their OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) certification so that they can seek employment on construction sites after completing the program.

Participants also get stipends for their work as well as NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research) certification, making them eligible for entry-level construction work.

PNW BOCES caseworker Andrea Conte helps recruit students for the program, which runs five days a week, four hours a day. “The program really helps students learn the educational and vocational skills needed to succeed,” she said.

As students prepare to leave the program, the Tech Center’s job development specialist, Amy Michaud-Wells, helps place them in the workforce. “We also follow their progress for a year after they complete the program,” she said. “We want the students to know that they are supported and we have a vested interest in their success.”

Velston Morrison, from Peekskill, a member of the first cohort, said, “Not only has it been incredibly beneficial to learn carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and electricity, but our teachers have taught us how to work together and give it our all.”

While the academic and technical skills learned are invaluable, the sense of community and having something all their own make students particularly enthusiastic about the program.

Said Codi Whyte, from Peekskill, “We have learned leadership skills, integrity, and really taking ownership of something.”