In the Shadows 

Building Confidence

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"It works!" says Lina Robinson, watching water run from the faucet she has just turned on in the upstairs bathroom at 10412 SE Schiller.

After a few moments of tentative consideration, Ryan Hanke decides to try flushing the toilet.

"I'm kind of blown away right now," he says, watching as water swirls in the bowl.

Paola Vasquez is looking at the molding on the bathroom door.

"I'm noticing a few mistakes," she smiles. "But they're very, very minor. And nobody else is going to see them. Just me."

If the trio seem unusually fascinated by the quotidian details of this bathroom in Lents, it's because they actually built the four-bedroom house, along with fellow members of Portland YouthBuilders—a nonprofit program that serves 150 young people each year, those between the ages of 17 and 24 who have not completed high school. Today, December 10, marks the completion of the house, which was started in March. It's already been sold to a low-income family . It's a privilege for this reporter to share in the kids' obvious sense of accomplishment on the day, even if we do seem to be experiencing it most intensely in the bathroom, of all places.

Robinson, Hanke, and Vasquez are all part of YouthBuilders' yearlong construction program, and have spent every alternate fortnight working on the house since they enrolled, in between completing their academic studies.

Each came to the program for a different reason. Robinson left Hawaii and came alone to Portland via San Diego, where her father and brother died in gang-related deaths. "I came here to get away from my friends and family," she says, in a confident tone that trails off slightly at the end, leaving the Mercury in the rare position of deciding not to ask more questions out of sensitivity. Despite her troubles, Robinson does seem to be thriving here, working part time at Nike Town in the women's apparel section, as well as moving toward completion of the YouthBuilders program. She hopes for a career in construction.

Hanke dropped out of Parkrose High School 10 weeks before graduating, and was heavily into drugs. "I was going down a really bad path," he admits. Now, as a member of the program, Hanke has to pass periodic drug tests, and says, "It's not worth it to get high for three hours when I have my whole future ahead of me." He now works part time at the Oregonian, doing advertising inserts, and has replaced his drug habit with a more positive addiction: snowboarding.

Vasquez spent a year at Gresham High School, and two years at Lincoln High School in Portland, but says she lacked the confidence to make a go of either experience. She ended up enrolling in YouthBuilders to make her mother happy after she had spent a year at home, struggling to find direction. "But I actually ended up liking it," she says. "It's changed me." Vasquez now plans to go to college.

One key aim of YouthBuilders, says construction trainer Daniel Stinchfield, is to encourage students to see the impact of their immediate decisions on their long-term goals. "It's heartbreaking," says Associate Development Director Tonia Kovtunovich, "when a student drops out of the program after six months to take a job at Burger King because they're in need of the short-term income."

Nevertheless, it happens. But at least for these three students, there's an uplifting sense that their time at YouthBuilders may well be enough to dissuade them from letting their lives slip down the toilet (if you'll forgive the heavy-handed symbolism).

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