By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

WARM SPRINGS — For some students, the knowledge that adults in their lives are supporting them is enough to motivate them to change.

Heart of Oregon Corps’ YouthBuild program offers such support for teens and young adults behind on credits for school. It gives students an opportunity to catch up on credits and earn job experience. While Madras High School was included in Heart of Oregon Corps’ YouthBuild since the program’s start in 2009, the program and Jefferson County School District only had a partnership from 2009 to 2011.

Until this year, when the two entities partnered again.

The partnership means a few things: School staffers aren’t just referring students to the program — they’re recruiting them for it, and the school district is helping provide transportation.

Students in YouthBuild spend two days a week in the classroom in Sisters, two days on a construction site building affordable housing in Madras and one day a week working on leadership, either inside the classroom or on location somewhere in Central Oregon.

Last week, students spent their leadership day giving back to the community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation by cleaning up the skate park located across from the Community Center.

Twenty-four students in Heart of Oregon Corps’ YouthBuild come from Madras High School, and about half of those students are Native American. About 50 students are in the program.

Butch David, the Madras High’s Native American student liaison, said he wanted to get more native students involved in YouthBuild.

“We’ve had a lot of kids that aren’t graduating,” he said, adding they had no chance.

One of those Native American students, Alyssa Culps, 17, started the 12-month program in January. High school students need 24 units to graduate. Although she was considered a junior, Alyssa had just four credits going into YouthBuild. Now she has 15.

In work boots, a YouthBuild T-shirt and work gloves, Alyssa paused from picking up trash to talk about her school experience before YouthBuild.

She ditched often, and mostly went to school to socialize. When she was in the classroom, she felt unsupported.

That’s not the case at YouthBuild.

“Every day when we walk in the door they give us a hug,” Alyssa said, adding when students raise their hands, teachers are there.

Kara Johnson, program director for YouthBuild, said that’s the whole idea of the program.

“We’ll respect you, we’ll treat you with kindness, but you’ve got to raise the bar,” she said.

In response, many students who like Alyssa used to skip school, now wake up as early as 4 a.m. to catch their buses to make it to YouthBuild at 8 a.m.

Kris Howtopat, 17, of Madras, was friends with Alyssa at Madras High, and also ditched school often. As a junior starting the program in January, she had 12 credits. She now has 17. Kris too appreciates the environment at YouthBuild, since in school she often felt ignored as a student.

James Greene, 16, of Warm Springs, was a sophomore when he joined YouthBuild in April.

“I feel like I’m doing a lot better,” he said last week.

Alyssa and Kris high-fived him for the improvements he’s made.

Though the program has helped students make large strides, it’s not easy work.

Arrita Sampson, 17, of Warm Springs, has struggled with a variety of issues, including her mental health, and said she has a long road ahead.

A lot of what staffers say is motivational, she said.

“YouthBuild is my stable place,” Arrita said. “I bounce around a lot, I don’t have a place to call home.”

For that reason, following YouthBuild’s basic rules, like showing up on time with her work boots and YouthBuild T-shirt if it’s a construction day, can be a challenge. Last week though, at the park cleanup, she came prepared.

“There’s been adults in their life that didn’t believe in them but all our staff believe in them,” Johnson said.

After 12 months in YouthBuild, staff follow up with students for about a year, checking in to make sure they have returned to school or found work. Arrita, James, Kris and Alyssa all plan to return to Madras High School when their YouthBuild time is up.

Arrita feels that support in the program.

“They don’t allow me to go through anything alone,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,