Ypsilanti Township resident Kenneth Snowdon was partway into a home remodeling project when he was hospitalized for an infection that spread to his spine and left him paralyzed in one leg. Trying to do too much in a home that wasn't built for someone disabled and using a walker, he made the situation worse.
"I was trying to get into the shower and doing more than I should and fell through the wall," Snowdon says. "We just taped it up. I've got a bunch of teenage boys here, living with a bathroom in really bad shape for the last six or eight months."
Snowdon's three sons and one of their teenage friends live with him and have been helping care for Snowdon during his illness and recovery. The two youngest sons and the family friend wanted to help finish the remodeling job, but needed some guidance. So when Snowdon saw a social media post about a local program that teaches young people home improvement skills through paid jobs, it seemed like a perfect fit.
That program, Youth 2 Contractors, is the brainchild of township resident Tyrone Bridges. Bridges has established and worked with nonprofits including an organization called Behavior Workshop in the past. However, he purposely included the Youth 2 Contractors program under the umbrella of his for-profit contracting business, Quick Mix Home Improvement, because Youth 2 Contractors offers paid jobs for youth, not unpaid internships. Youth can make $10-$12 an hour depending on experience, and are paid even more for landscaping and other hard outdoor labor.
Youth gain skills by doing handyman jobs around the Ypsilanti area, and Bridges also plans to partner with Home Depot employees to teach participating youth a variety of DIY skills. Bridges got the idea for the program from interacting with his son's friends.
"My son recently graduated from the Belleville schools, and a prerequisite for seniors is to do some community service work of some type of employment, so I decided: Let's get that age group, kids in 11th and 12th grade, and link them to employment in the community," Bridges says.
When Snowdon reached out and met Bridges in person for the first time, the two men found they had a lot in common. For starters, they had both been single dads, and both loved sports. In fact, Snowdon had worked with youth as a referee and umpire for more than 20 years before becoming partially paralyzed. Snowdon also grew up next door to the man who ended up being Bridges' best friend in high school.
That kind of person-to-person connection is an unofficial but big part of the Youth 2 Contractors program. The project at the Snowdon household builds on interests Snowdon's youngest son, Coleman, 17, and family friend Jared Taylor, 18, are already exploring at the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education.
The middle Snowdon brother, Bannon, is working on getting his GED and also plans to pitch in with remodeling, while the oldest brother in the family works a full-time job to "keep the family afloat," Kenneth Snowdon says.
Referring to his two younger sons and Taylor, Kenneth Snowdon says, "All three of these guys were at risk without (yet having) a high school education and viable skills going out into a world that's so competitive. It's nice for these guys to get an opportunity to gain skills."
Coleman Snowdon says the work he's been doing on the house interests him because he has always had mechanical inclinations.
"We used to take ink pens apart to see how they work, and parts would be strewn around the house," he says. He says he probably could have figured out how to lay tiles on his own, but it would have been a "decent job, not a great job."
"Tyrone didn't just show us the quick and easy way," Coleman says. "He showed us the best ways, so we could make it look nice, not like we'd done it quickly and just slapped it on."
Bannon Snowdon says Bridges has already taught him skills that will be useful not just professionally, but personally. Even if Bannon decides not to become a contractor or handyman, he says the skills he's learning, like installing tile in the kitchen, will likely be useful when he is older and owns his own home. Plus, he says, "building stuff is fun."
Bannon says he's getting a real-world look at what working in skilled trades is like. He has considered taking up a skilled trade like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and says "it would be good to already have experience working with my hands."
Taylor has known the Snowdon brothers since middle school and came to live with them when his parents moved out of town because he wanted to finish his high school education in Ypsilanti.
"I like venturing further into the field (of contracting), getting knowledge and hands-on experience," Taylor says. "I'm getting knowledge about this now and it's interesting, and maybe something I'd like to do for a living."
When the project is completed in the next few weeks, the kitchen and bathroom of the Snowdon house will have more than a cosmetic makeover. The project includes widening the bathroom doorway and converting the shower to a walk-in one with no lip, to prevent future accidents like the one that left a hole in the wall.
Recruiting the young men for this job wasn't difficult, and in general, recruitment isn't something Bridges has to work hard at. He says he'll often go on a home improvement job and will make connections with the young people living in the home.
"I went to unconnect a gas dryer for a family and take it to their new home and hook it up, and the kids were surrounding me," Bridges says. "I talk a lot, and I was teaching as I went along."
Bridges' ultimate goal is to have such a robust program that he can assign experienced youth to be supervisor or foreman on a job, so they will gain leadership skills and learn to take ownership of the projects on top of the handyman skills they're gaining.
Bridges says he is passionate about teaching these skills to youth because he doesn't have anyone in his own family to pass them on to, since his own son turned down an offer to become a co-owner of Quick Mix.
"I know a lot of skills I was shown by my stepdad through the years, and I put them in the back of my mind until I could use them on small jobs," Bridges says. "It motivated me to want to show young folks these skills. When I die, I can't take these skills with me, so I thought it would be useful to pass it on."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.