When she was a girl, Toiana Lackland wanted to be a carpenter. She liked making things with her hands and she’d watch home improvement shows on TV enthusiastically.
As families moved out of her Highland Park neighborhood, and blight and abandonment became malignant, Toiana dreamt of fixing up the vacant houses and then seeing families returning to renew her hometown.
Her childhood aspiration became derailed by tragedy and alienation. When Toiana was nine, her stepfather was murdered in the front doorway of their home, where she still lives.
“The bullet holes remain in the bricks,” she said.
In high school, Toiana felt that she never fit in. She was painfully shy and ill-at-ease with the cliquish culture.
“I felt very alone, and depression kicked in,” she said.
Toiana dropped out at 16. She took a job at a fast-food restaurant. She worked there full time for five years. then had the opportunity to work for a construction and demolition company. The job ended, but it rekindled her interest in becoming a carpenter, though she didn’t have a path to get there. Toiana went to a Michigan Works! office seeking employment and possible training. There she learned about YouthBuild.
YouthBuild is a six-month program run by Southwest Solutions that teaches young people construction skills so they can prepare for careers in the building trades. Students earn certifications and can also earn their GED.
Toiana was part of the first YouthBuild class that recently graduated.
“I came into the program with no high school diploma and no life plan,” said Toi, who is now 24. “Now I know what I want and know how to get there.”
Completing YouthBuild was a difficult endeavor for Toiana. The bus ride to and from the class took two hours each way. Because she had been removed from school for many years, studying the GED subjects proved challenging.
“I’d study at night and on weekends, and there were many times that I wanted to give up,” Toiana said. “But my mind started to adjust, and I gained more confidence. The YouthBuild teachers were very good and supportive. I surprised myself and got through it!”
As part of YouthBuild, Toiana and the other students got real-world experience in helping to rehab a vacant house in southwest Detroit. The hands-on instruction was directed by staff with Future Build Construction, which is part of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. The Future Build instructors were impressed with Toiana’s work ethic.
“As we were doing the training, we saw how eager she was to learn and her attention to detail,” said Jesus Ibarra with Future Build. “There are always opportunities in this field for people who are motivated. That’s why we offered Toiana a job.”
Toiana is now helping to rehab a house in the Rosa Parks neighborhood. Her commute on the bus is still long, and she is starting to save so she can buy a used car. She’s also saving so she can get an affordable apartment of her own. Toiana is close to finishing her GED and intends to enroll in community college next fall. She wants to study business and hopes to have her own small construction company one day.
“I want to make a real contribution to helping my city get better,” Toiana said.
YouthBuild is available to young people 18-24 years old who live in Detroit, Highland Park or Hamtramck. To sign up or learn more, contact Manny at 313-297-0091 or email him.