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Building Big Dreams

by Kareema Barr

Growing up, I had dreams of what my future would look like. But reality taught me that achieving a dream and building a future is a learning process and can't be done alone.

As a young, third-generation welfare recipient in Chicago, I struggled to find direction when I dropped out of high school a few credits shy of graduation. The reality was, I had no one to support my aspirations of going to college and starting a career. With the cost of education, little job experience, and no consistent place to live, my dreams appeared to be rapidly fading.

That changed when I moved to Bloomington, IL, and discovered YouthBuild through a mentor at my church. Through YouthBuild, I learned the importance of education and community outreach, and was exposed to world issues larger than my own. The program provided leaders to model myself after and the support needed to achieve the goals I set. I began to believe that I could succeed and make a positive impact in the world.

After training, I helped to build homes in McLean County while earning my high school diploma and studying for the ACT. I also traveled to New Orleans -- my first time leaving Illinois -- to join Katrina recovery efforts. Through YouthBuild, I met people like myself, individuals with their own issues but who were channeling their energy into community outreach to help others. After graduating from YouthBuild in 2007, I earned a position with AmeriCorps, where I worked with The Red Cross, YMCA/YWCA, and Marcfirst, a nonprofit that supports disabled adults.

Now, six years after national service set me on a pathway to opportunity, I have a full-time career as a program manager for YouthBuild Gulf Coast in Biloxi, MS. I have spoken on behalf of Opportunity Youth on a panel for the White House Council for Community Solutions. I am a former president of the YouthBuild National Young Leaders Council, and now a member of the YouthBuild USA Board of Directors. I am working toward my bachelor's degree in business management and hope to continue working in the nonprofit sector.

Service changed me. Today I am driven by the desire to help kids who are at-risk, and show them the world is bigger and brighter than it may seem. Opportunities abound for young people to volunteer and build skills for future jobs. A great example is FEMA Corps – a newly launched program that utilizes AmeriCorps NCCC members for disaster response and emergency management.

I am fortunate to have had service experience. It presented me with a new direction and mentors who taught me how to lead. Because of this, I was able to build my future and make my dreams become a reality.

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