Gabriel “Gabe” Agee did not have an auspicious start. He grew up in federally-assisted housing with his single mother and sister, though he did graduate from high school in 2000.

Gabe had no job, and a friend recommended the YouthBuild program at Venice Community Housing Corp. (VCHC).

“They accepted me,” he says, despite some very serious difficulties he was having.

YouthBuild trains at-risk youths in construction trades, helps them to develop leadership skills, supports them to obtain their high school diplomas or GEDs and connects them to jobs so they can transition into long-term employment or continue educational pursuits.

“He’s one of those youths who could have gone in a lot of directions,” says Anne Murphy, former Venice Community Housing Corp. director of youth development. “He had fallen off track and when he came to us he was searching for some way to get back on track.

“He was not very trusting at first, trying to figure out how to get around things. It didn’t take him long to realize that we were a good group of people and we had his best interests in mind.

“Once he realized that, he began to really excel and, like many young people who’ve never been appreciated for the stuff that they do well, once he started getting strokes for what he was doing, well, it just started to snowball.”

“He knew we had a lot of structure in our program and was a bit concerned about that but took a chance,” says Sal Galvin, former YouthBuild program manager. “He had a bit of an attitude at first, but I worked with him on that.”

His challenges were working with other people and following instructions.

“He got good at learning how to be more open-minded,” Sal adds. “He eventually felt that, ‘Hey, whatever I’m working on, it’s for me.’ So, he started being more proactive and taking an initiative.”

“We actually chose him for special projects because he was always on time,” adds Sal. “He had 100 percent attendance, which was a big deal at that time — from switching from a young person out of school and not being in school to all of a sudden picking up on a time schedule. He did really well. At the end he just took off.”

Gabe acknowledges that YouthBuild isn’t just about getting an education for a trade.

“I learned some construction skills but, more than that, how to present yourself in front of people — how to carry yourself,” he says. “I think a lot of people my age who come from things that I come from don’t get places because they don’t know how to present themselves.

“If you can learn that, you can probably go a little further. I’m still working on it — being an upstanding citizen — not a bum on the street or a gang member.

“I learned the importance of punctuality and being on time. They would leave you if you weren’t on time.”

After a year, Gabe graduated from YouthBuild, in 2001. He got into the carpenters union and worked at Playa Vista.

“Before the year was up, I asked my employer if I could work three days out of the week and I’d go to school the other two days,’ he says. “I realized that I didn’t want to be a carpenter. I took basic subjects because I knew I wanted to transfer.”

Gabe’s next step was to go to Santa Monica College, where he graduated in 2005. While there, he was in the Trio/Student Support Services, which is a federally-funded program whose goal is to help first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds maximize their talent and potential in higher education.

The program encourages these students to transfer to a four-year college or university.

The program was beneficial to Gabe. He applied to UCLA, San Jose State and Berkeley and was accepted by all three.

“The Trio program took us to Berkeley both years to get you involved and excited about going to Berkeley,” he says. “It worked for me.”

Gabe is now an art major at UC-Berkeley.

“I always liked to draw since I was young,” he says. “I want to do stuff that I enjoy.” When he graduates he wants to do claymation (clay animation) shorts, which is first making a clay piece and then taking a picture of it as you move it very slowly. “It is time-consuming, to say the least. You need a lot of patience.”

Now in his second year, Gabe was excited to go back. “It’s the first time I’ve lived in a house,” he says.

“I’m thankful to be where I’m at,” says Gabe. “I know a lot of people who didn’t get the chances that I’ve gotten. I think, if I can do it, anybody can do it. You have to step up to the plate and do it yourself. Nobody is going to do it for you.”

“Gabe is a fascinating story in being successful,” says Sal. “From the first day he walked in the door and I sat down and met with him — I’m used to speaking with so many young people that are out of school and not doing anything and that is the gratification — getting a student like that who is completely lost, not sure of what they want to do, but one thing they do have is the inclination that they do want to do something constructive and productive and then going through the whole year with them and watching them just blossom and making it.

“It’s a fascinating change.”

YouthBuild is for young people who are out of school with little or no job skills and are at-risk as far as being in trouble with the law or at risk of getting into trouble with the law because of their behavior or actions and needing guidance in job training. The key is that they are willing to learn some skills that will put them on a productive path and to accomplish goals that they work together with the Venice Community Housing Corp. staff to accomplish.

Gabe keeps in touch with Venice Community Housing Corp.

“It’s a nice place to go back to — to friendly, familiar faces that you can talk to and to educated people who can give you advice if you need it,” he says.

He was the first recipient of the Venice Community Housing Corp. Michael Rueben Memorial Scholarship, which paid for housing during his freshman year at school. The scholarship was named in memory of a YouthBuild participant who, after successfully completing the program, receiving his high school diploma and securing employment, died an untimely and tragic death at the age of 19.

Gabe was the guest speaker at the YouthBuild 2006 graduation and talked about his success story. It was a true inspiration to others to follow in his footsteps.

For more information on Venice Community Housing Corp., www.vchc.org

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