In a bustling kitchen in La Cienega, local youths work alongside professional chefs to prepare hundreds of meals a day for the community. At a construction site 10 miles away, other young people help build affordable housing units.
This is Santa Fe YouthBuild, a year-long program run by YouthWorks that’s designed to give at-risk young people work experience and educational support. Participants prepare to take the GED and gain construction or culinary skills as they work four days a week and receive a stipend.
YouthBuild recently received a $1.3 million grant from the US Labor Department Employment and Training Administration that’ll allow YouthWorks, the well-known local nonprofit, to recruit 72 young people and continue the program for three years. It’s the largest grant the program has ever received.
“We’re very thrilled about it,” YouthWorks founder Melynn Schuyler tells SFR. “This grant allows us to add more young people per year and better staffing levels and a little more infrastructure to just add to the impact of the program.”
During SFR’s visit last week to the kitchen at the living history museum El Rancho de las Golondrinas, students and staffers cook meals for the New Mexico School for the Deaf and the Midtown homeless shelter, take orders at the museum cafe and get ready for the annual Santa Fe Wine Festival.
When their work allows, students and staff take quick breaks to talk about how YouthBuild has impacted their lives.
Yulissa Dominguez, 18, has been in the program about two months. She’s working on her GED and plans to go into the culinary arts program at Santa Fe Community College.
“This is a really good experience for me because I do want to become a chef, so this is good for me to know what I’m going to be doing in the kitchen and seeing how everyone works together,” Dominguez tells SFR. “It’s opened my eyes to what a kitchen is really like.”
Roberto Vigil, the kitchen manager’s assistant, says students are trained up on all the skills and knowledge necessary to work in a kitchen—from portioning to plating—and are sometimes brought on as full-time employees when they finish the program. Vigil says he just started working at YouthWorks three weeks ago, but the students and staff already feel like family.
Bryan Romero joined YouthBuild as a student in 2009, when he was 19. He came back to work in the kitchen last year because he wants to help young people who are struggling like he was at their age.
“When I was younger, they gave me a job when no one really would because I was on probation and they gave me a chance,” says Romero, who is in his early 30s now. “I wanted to teach these kids to do something other than screw up, because I had a really rough past, too, so any way I can change that for someone else is a good thing.”
Culinary Training Director Cecilia Tadfor says YouthBuild’s service to the homeless shelter is just the beginning of the program’s work in the food sector. Students and staff make deliveries to some of the pueblos, and during the pandemic they prepared and distributed meals to children who were reliant on after-school programs. They even offer private catering.
“The coolest thing that happened is, during the pandemic, all of these young people became the key to the emergency meal production system in town for kids and for all the homeless that were being housed, and we were delivering meals to rural communities,” Schuyler says. “They produced over half a million meals from March  to last May .”
It’s a 20-minute drive to Oshara Village, where YouthBuild’s other vocational component is in full swing on a recent weekday afternoon. Two students build a wall for Habitat for Humanity housing as volunteers shuttle building materials around the site and an electric saw buzzes in the background.
Leandro Lopez, 17, and 18-year-old Miguel Sandoval are at the end of their year in the program. Lopez says he was referred by teen court, while Sandoval was referred by his dad—a YouthBuild participant in its early days. Lopez has his GED and Sandoval is getting ready to take the test.
Over the past year, they’ve learned welding, framing and masonry work, among other things. Neither knows yet whether they want to work in construction, but because they now have construction certificates, it’s an option.
“They have more value to employers since they’ve actually done some of the work and have experience versus someone who’s never done this work,” Rob Lochner, Santa Fe Habitat for Humanity construction director, says as he takes a break from supervising. “Right now, there’s a shortage of construction workers. Everybody’s looking, so if you’re willing to work hard and you already have skills, you’re going to get paid more and have more opportunities.”
Lochner works with the students along with YouthBuild Construction Program Manager Johnny Gee, who’s been at YouthWorks three years.
Gee grew up in Santa Fe and worked for Habitat for Humanity in Portland before moving back home. He planned to start his own construction company “for youth that are struggling and don’t like high school” before seeing a job opening at YouthWorks.
“I didn’t even ask for the job. I was like, ‘Give me this job. This is my passion,’” Gee says. “I had come home, and it kind of just happened to already be there, with a bunch of beautiful people at YouthWorks. It’s just like family.”
Applications for the program’s next round—available to people ages 16 to 24—open this week and will be accepted on a rolling basis. Anyone who’s interested can learn more by contacting YouthBuild Program Director Hicham Ghizlane at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling YouthWorks at (505) 989-1855.
“We’re always open to receiving more youths and supporting them in whatever way we can,” Tadfor of the culinary arts program says. “We’ll find a way to work with any youths who walk in our doors to give them these opportunities.”