Teens learn construction skills on the job in Summit Lake

by Ken Evans

In Summit Lake, a group of teens and young adults are learning construction skills. But more important, they’re learning how to work together.

The Build Corps was founded in March 2017 by Stephanie Leonardi, who goes by “Leo.” In 2014, Leo, on a journey of self-discovery, quit her teaching job, moved to Summit Lake, and begin doing projects with local kids. 

Leo explains she was looking to be a part of whatever was good: “Slowly, out of that year came these cool one-time art projects that would turn into events…that brought people together. And eventually that led [to] a lot of strong relationships with the kids.”

The kids in her neighborhood, Leo says, “just want to have fun and be helpful.” 

After more than two years in the neighborhood, Leo founded the Build Corps, a company made up of Summit Lake teens and young adults who do construction projects. Youth learn on the job while they build neighborhood infrastructure, do beautification projects and help with events. While Summit Lake Build Corps does things traditionally associated with nonprofit work, Leo says it is actually a business. However, Leo points out that the distinction is a technical one, and the only people making money are the teens and young adults doing the work. Adult professionals volunteer as lead builders. 

For their first project, Leo explains, “[We] brought all these kids together. We got a logo, slapped it on a shirt. Like 12 kids showed up. We had all these volunteers [and] a bunch of pallets that I picked up from Mustard Seed.” From there, they broke into groups and began building benches. 

By the time the project was finished, Leo says the group was wondering, “When can we do this again?”

“Building was the first thing we could repeat,” Leo says. The Build Corps “was really was birthed out of relationships, being with kids, looking for that niche of something we could do together.”

Since the creation of the program two and a half years ago, the group has undertaken projects in the Summit Lake community. They have built fences, constructed art projects, repaired homes, helped with block parties, constructed more benches and started the renovation of a garage to act as their headquarters on Ira Avenue. The Build Corps is currently helping to renovate the house in front of that garage in partnership with Build Akron, a nonprofit focused on improving housing in Summit Lake. 

The program seeks to keep its definition of “kid” loose, welcoming participants from ages 12 to 23. The membership requirements are relaxed as well — it’s more about attitude, desire to learn and availability rather than a formal process, Leo says.

Leo sees the Build Corps as “building trust, skills, leaders, and character” — though she’s the first to admit that “sometimes it’s just an excuse to hang out with them, and it’s — how cool that we have a purpose.” 

“We have to problem-solve, we have to work together, we have to do things when we don’t feel like it, we have to pay attention, we have to be safe, we have to teach others — but we do it together. And so it’s just like any close-knit people: Sometimes you don’t like each other, but there is a deeper love, and it’s fun.” 

Student Trevor Campbell says: “Being in the program has meant so much to me because it has put me in a lot of situations I wouldn’t ever put myself in. It has really helped me in what I want to do after high school as far as a career, it has helped me socialize more, so the program is way more than just a job to me — it’s a family that loves each other.”

Even when thefts have forced the Build Corps to go to court, Leo remains willing to be friendly, shake a hand and even act as a reference. And while that reference will be truthful, trust can be earned again — though she says confidently, “You won’t get away with faking it.”

As the program moves forward, they are looking to expand what the participants can do by undertaking more projects that integrate design elements. Leo would like to see youth exposed to every part of the building process, from drafting on a computer to construction.

The success of the Build Corps, Leo says, is in the community created among its members and the skills they gain. 

“They have led projects without me, with me just completely set back. No lead builder, ‘cause they know how to do it, they are so fluent in that. Which is, like, the proudest moments, right? When you look over and they are teaching something that they learned from someone else to another kid, and they are selling it, like they believe it, and they are telling a kid that — it’s great,” Leo says.“It’s like, awww! Look at them! They are patient, they get their shoulder in it, and get on the ground.”

To learn more about the Summit Lake Build Corps, visit facebook.com/SummitLakeBuildCorps.

Photos: Used with permission from Stephanie Leonardi. 

Ken Evans finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.