10/22/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Thanking a Champion of YouthBuild

At YouthBuild's 35th Anniversary event on October 2, 2013 at the Ford Foundation, tribute was paid to Secretary of State John Kerry. Here, Michael Parker, a YouthBuild graduate, shares his personal history with the then Senator Kerry.

When I first started the YouthBuild program in East Harlem I was 24 and filled with optimism about what I could contribute to the world and my community. I was in search of a strong sense of support to provide me with the knowledge and love to make it out of my neighborhood. East Harlem was not the best place to find opportunity, especially when you were dealing with the many distractions that could deter you from finding a way out. YouthBuild became my way out: they showed me love, created a network of family that I could call my own and gave me a sense of leadership and hope that I could be anything that I wanted to be. I loved everything about YouthBuild. The whole staff was dedicated to making me a better person -- for myself, my community, and my family.

My Program Director often spoke about government officials and the role they played in the YouthBuild program. I was lucky to have YouthBuild, but I was unlucky to live in a harsh world where my future and resources to better myself were always in jeopardy because of politicians. Therefore, I was never a fan of anything related to politics. When we were told that we would have a visitor to the program from Congress, I was not as excited as I should have been.

In YouthBuild we do construction on low-income homes and I had the pleasure of working on a building right down the block from where I grew up, so it was very important and meaningful for me to finish the project before I graduated. I did not appreciate that we would have to stop a project just so that we could share some time with a senator from Massachusetts, Senator John Kerry.

I was surprised to see that he didn't have that much security with him. I figured that he was a mad man to come to this neighborhood and not have protection. Either that or he really wanted to make it look nice for the media. Despite my cynicism, I could see that he really wanted to spend time with the young people and did not want to make this a media circus.

Also to my surprise, the Senator was well informed about the tools that we were using and was adamant about helping us out because he wanted us to stay on task with the project that we were working on. He spoke to the media that attended the meet and greet for 5 minutes, but he spent most of his time working and talking to the students in the group. He even went with us to the neighborhood store during our break to continue the conversation; I was very impressed with John Kerry. He broke down the stereotypes I held about politicians.

I was in awe at the level of respect he extended to myself and all of my classmates. We were treated as regular young people who had opinions that mattered. At no time did the occasion feel like he was there for a photo opportunity, or to deliver a politically motivated speech.

Later, when he was running for President, I had the privilege to come to one of his town hall meetings in Brooklyn, New York. I had just graduated from my YouthBuild program and had come to a cross-road in my life. I was working 70 hours a week at a dead end job making minimum wage, and my home life was not much better.

When Dorothy Stoneman, President of YouthBuild USA, contacted me and asked me if I wanted to come to Senator Kerry's town hall to speak on behalf of YouthBuild, I was on my lunch break at work. I remember being so excited about this opportunity. I asked my boss if I could take the rest of the day off to attend the event, but he told me that if I left early, I was fired. I left.

The town hall meeting was filled with important people from New York who were talking, shaking hands and taking pictures. I was standing in the corner by myself; newly unemployed, scared and feeling completely out of place. One of Senator Kerry's staff members saw me and realized that I was the young guest speaker from YouthBuild. He asked me if I wanted to see the Senator before the event. He took me to a place that the Secret Service called the "bullpen," and I realized that I was the only person allowed to speak to the Senator. It was a once in a lifetime experience that has changed my life forever. Speaking at the Town Hall made my mother proud of me again, and gave me a reason to believe in politics and in myself.

YouthBuild would not exist if it was not for Senator Kerry's hard work and determination in the Senate that allows young people a second chance at life. After graduating from my program, I am raising 3 lovely boys and am a Case Manager at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation's YouthBuild program. The fact that I have the ability to provide for my family is mainly due to supporters of YouthBuild, like John Kerry, and the hard work he has done for at-risk young people.

YouthBuild may be one of the best kept secrets in the country. In its 35 year existence, it is my humble opinion that this organization has transformed the lives of thousands of its participants and graduates. Had it not been for YouthBuild and the helping hand that Dorothy Stoneman extends to students and alumni like me for over 35 years, I may not have evolved into the responsible, hardworking young man I am today.

In our programs, we are taught that voices of young people must be heard, especially in public policy. I have always felt that in order for our voices to be not only heard, but paid attention to, there has to be a person on the inside who is willing to hear what we have to say and take our message to their elected peers. John Kerry has always been that person for YouthBuild and for that, I thank him.

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