By Rebecca Sheir
The unemployment rate in D.C.'s Ward 8 is among the highest in the nation. The D.C. Department of Employment Services says joblessness east of the Anacostia River reached nearly 30 percent by the end of last year.
But advocates for youth in the area say the unemployment rate for young adults in Ward 8 is much, much higher.
Anacostia resident Charles Thornton says he suspects the jobless rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in Ward 8 nears 50 percent.
"I think it's a lot greater than the statistics that are coming out from the Department of Labor," he says. "And I'm saying that as a person who is at the ground level, dealing with youth that come into my program."
That program is Sasha Bruce Youth Build, which Thornton describes as "a construction-trade/GED program for 18 to 24-year-olds."
With D.C.'s high-school dropout rate hovering around 50 percent, Thornton says it's hard for young people with neither a diploma nor job training to find work, "but the youth that we deal with has taken an alternative route to education and employment."
And that 21-month route includes a stop in this classroom at the P.R. Harris Education Center in southeast D.C., where students are learning the nuts and bolts of HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air-Conditioning) from Lawrence Kitching, a.k.a. Levi.
Today Levi's students are taking a practice test of work-site standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Leaning over, 25-year-old Que-ana Evans, Queen, for short, Levi reads a sample question off the computer screen.
"When dehydrating a system, the system can be reheated to...what would that answer be, Queen?" he asks.
"To decrease the dehydration times," she replies.
"Increase the dehydration time?"
"Oh, to decrease! Right!"
Evans is a single mother who dropped out of school when she was 14.
"I was homeless. And when I found out about Youth Build it was in the summer of 2009," she says.
Now that she has her GED and is getting certified in multiple aspects of construction (including OSHA certification, electrical licensing, plumbing, etc.) she says she isn't worried about finding a job when she graduates from Youth Build in August.
"The economy is changing so much," she says. "They're tearing stuff down. And you know, with the construction work, it's coming in handy."
Her classmate, 20-year-old Vanessa Lewis, agrees.
"I'm very confident about finding a job," she says. "That's not even an issue for me. I can say that."
Of course, both Evans and Lewis also say they never expected to be doing this kind of work.
"When I was younger, learning was not even my thing," says Lewis. "I was never into school."
"Not at all, not at all," Evans says. "Never imagined it!"
But Lewis says it's bringing out her very best.
"And that's whats gonna take you far," she contends. "That's what's gonna take you to the future. You gotta put your best foot forward, because only the strong is gonna survive."
Charles Thornton says there's a lot of misinformation that's out there as it relates to Ward 8 and youth in Ward 8 not wanting anything.
But he says those youth can, and do, want something, especially if they realize it can be within their reach. Give them the chance to learn, he says, to grow, "and it opens the door to all type of other opportunities. And when you do that, you know, you improve the city."
By improving the next generation that will be building and rebuilding that city, piece by piece by piece.