Jackie Gibbs, 22, used to be a gang member with a cocaine habit and a hefty juvenile rap sheet. Three years after responding to a YouthWorks flyer she saw posted at a mall, she’s YouthWorks’ operations director and has found her calling helping other young people put their lives on track. The nonprofit recently received a $930,000 YouthBuild grant from the US Department of Labor, which will be used to hire more kids to build green, affordable housing. The day of SFR’s interview, Gibbs was working with a youth crew fixing up YouthWorks’ new site on Cerrillos Road.

SFR: When you were growing up, what did you think you would be doing when you were 22?
JG: I thought I would be dead. I thought I was going nowhere. I was a gang member; we were robbing people’s houses. Me and my friends were doing drugs, selling drugs, gang violence—everything bad, we were doing…Right before I started working here, I literally was staying place to place. Sometimes, I would stay at a friend’s house; sometimes, the youth shelters would let me stay there; sometimes, I would stay under bridges.

What about YouthWorks is so powerful that it makes you want to someday succeed [Executive Director Melynn Schuyler] in her job?
A lot of these kids here, they’re like me; they’ve been in exactly the same situation. They’re either in gangs or doing drugs—they just want a way out. YouthWorks gives people a way out. It’s a safe environment where you don’t have to be judged by people—nobody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re west side; you’re south side; and you guys are going to work separately.’ We’re the kind of place where you work together because that’s the point of everything…I love how it brings people together. Even still now, when I’m having problems at home and fighting with my significant other, I go to YouthWorks and sit in the parking lot to just be in that comfort zone. I never had anywhere to go that made me feel like this. Melynn and [Deputy Director Tobe Bott-Lyons] are like angels. If it wasn’t for them, who knows where half of these kids would be.

What are some of the challenges of working with kids who are in that transition?
It’s very emotional because I have to bring up my past in order to help them deal with their situations. What did I do when I was in that situation, when I was living on the streets? And what did I do wrong so I could tell them, ‘I did this wrong; you need to not do this…you need to worry about yourself and what your next move is, not living day by day.’
Are there particular kids whose changes have been neat to see?
One of the guys that currently works here, we were doing drugs together at one point. He went to jail when I was the supervisor of the [YouthWorks] River Crew because he got pulled over for a DUI. When he got out of jail, we gave him a job, and he changed his life because he saw what I was doing, like I got promoted because I was working hard and I had respect for the people I was working for. He stopped doing drugs; he has a house; he’s gonna have a baby now. He’s one of my crew supervisors. It’s amazing ’cause I had a part in that. I have the power to give opportunities to my peers. What Melynn and Tobe did for me, I’m getting that opportunity to do it for other people. I’m paying it forward by helping other people the way they helped me.

Do you remember a specific time when you first came to YouthWorks when you were like, ‘Whoa, this is cool?’
We did this one community event, [the Santa Fe River Festival and Fishing Derby], with all the main staff like Tobe and Melynn. And just the way they approached young people around them was amazing. There’s some older gang members that used to work here that were the supervisors at the time—it was amazing watching how they want to touch people’s lives. They aren’t judgmental, even to the families of, like, white people, the people that we don’t usually see. They could be like, ‘How would you fit in with YouthWorks?’ But I see so many different kinds of people come in through YouthWorks, that it’s not just gang members; it’s not just drug users. At that event that day, they showed how we were all working together.