It’s been an incredible journey of almost three years since ground was broken on the first of four houses on Page Street East in the Westside neighborhood of St. Paul, less than a mile from GAP School. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and construction supply shortages, the build project has yielded remarkable results. On May 24th, the completed project was celebrated with an open house event that saw student participants, project instructors, community members, project construction partners, and local state legislators and representatives gather together as one.
Through GAP School’s YouthBuild St. Paul Westside Construction Career Pathway, participants build and/or renovate housing for low-income families in our community while gaining experience in a wide variety of construction skills such as carpentry, electrical, framing, insulation, painting, reading blueprints, and environmentally-sustainable construction practices. Students in the Construction Pathway are generally English Language Learners, and many come from refugee camps in Thailand or Myanmar. The language barrier between students and instructors can be significant, but the students are focused on hands-on learning opportunities.
The plans for these houses began back in 2016 when Change Inc. purchased 4 lots on Page Street East on the Westside of St. Paul. The initial plan was to build multi-family housing through either duplexes, rowhomes, or townhomes that would boast green building practices (i.e., energy efficient design, solar-powered chimney, heavy insulation, shared green space, etc.).
The design of the new construction of the single-family home worksite was created to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification eligible and is expected to earn Platinum LEED status by August of this year. Project leaders worked closely with the U.S. Green Building Council in Minnesota to both educate program participants as well as work towards gaining LEED certification.
GAP School leadership worked with architects from MSR Design, who generously offered pro bono design services to create the architectural plans. After exploring spacing for the various types of homes and St. Paul zoning requirements, it was decided that the best option would instead be to build multiple single-family homes.
Over 120 student participants were trained over the course of the build to execute all construction techniques required to complete new construction of the house, except for HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems. However, students had the opportunity to shadow these professionals on site. Of particular importance to construction contractors and apprenticeship partners, work readiness skills were integrated into on-site construction training and emphasized daily by worksite trainers with immediate feedback to students.
The house was built with the assistance of licensed contractors and construction partners; however, the students did a majority of the work themselves after being taught by GAP School’s Construction instructors, Tony Zahradka, Craig Wagenknecht, Beya Mi, and Sophan Nhean. Generous community partners for this build include Johnstone Supply, the Electrical Association, 3M, Pella, Kohler, and AFK Group.
With the house completed, student participants, instructors, community members, and local representatives and legislators gathered at the home to celebrate with an open house event. Students gave tours of the home and shared memories and lessons from their building experiences.
Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, was in attendance and made remarks to the crowd. Along with Senator Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, Norris was a lead sponsor of a bill that will double Minnesota’s state portion of YouthBuild funding from $1 million to $2 million per year for the next two years. GAP School alumni, Hser Pwe and Aung Myo Way, testified during the legislative session about YouthBuild’s impact on their life and greatly aided in convincing lawmaker’s decision-making. This is a huge win for not only GAP School students, but all YouthBuild USA programs across the country.
My life has changed so much since I joined YouthBuild. Today I make more than $40/hour as a Journeyman in the union, and I own my own home. I owe all my success to the YouthBuild program and I hope you will support them with increased funding for other young people like me."
The first Page Street home went on the market June 1st and is listed by former GAP School graduate, Boe Boe, a realtor with Partners Realty. Boe emigrated to Minnesota from a refugee camp in Thailand, and became a student at GAP School in 2010, the year the first four Karen (pronounced kuh-REn) students enrolled. The home is listed as a low-income property to be sold to households that meet the income eligibility criteria.
With the first of four homes complete, it’s almost time to move onto the next. Ground is expected to break on the second lot this summer. It’s clear to see that participants are not merely constructing a house; they are also building bridges within their community on the Westside of St. Paul. The YouthBuild St. Paul Westside program run by GAP School emphasizes the importance of giving back and making a positive impact. By engaging in construction projects such as the Page Street build, student participants acquire valuable life skills, gain confidence, learn the value of hard work and social responsibility, and become active contributors to their communities.
Staff Spotlight: LaDonna Jackson’s Impact as a School-Based Mental Health Therapist at Hmong International Academy
Mental health therapists are an integral part of a school’s staff. In recent years, schools have recognized the profound impact that mental health has on students’ overall well-being and academic success. To address this critical need, many schools have embraced the invaluable role of a school-based mental health therapist. These dedicated professionals bring a wealth of expertise to the table, fostering a positive and supportive environment in which students can thrive, which is exactly what Change Inc.’s Community and School Collaborative (CSC) aims to do.
Today, the CSC has mental health practitioners and professionals in 32 Twin Cities metro schools to provide on-site school-based mental health services to more than 650 children and families.
Recently, one of Change Inc.’s school-based mental health therapists was praised by her school’s leadership. That therapist is LaDonna Jackson. LaDonna is based at Hmong International Academy in Minneapolis. Hmong International Academy (HIA) is a Hmong culturally specific school with grades pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
Prior to starting at starting at Change Inc., LaDonna graduated from college in 2016 and started her career as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, and then as a special education co-teacher at Battle Creek School in St. Paul. When funding was taken away for the position, LaDonna transferred to River East School as a mental health practitioner. It was here that she was exposed to the mental health epidemic and crisis happening at such a young age in children.
While at Battle Creek, she met a therapist from Change Inc. based at that school, and was interested in the work they were doing. This position was the launching point for LaDonna deciding to go back to school to get her Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Argosy University. After completing her Master’s degree, LaDonna was brought in as an intern for Change Inc. in September 2019 before going full time.
A positive impact of a school-based mental health therapist is that they can help reduce stigma surrounding mental health. By having a therapist on campus, mental health concerns can be normalized and can be addressed as a regular part of a student’s overall health and well-being. This can help reduce feeling of shame or embarrassment that students may have about seeking mental health support.
LaDonna says the most common mental health issues she is seeing in students at HIA are grief, peer conflict, peer social anxiety, and an increase in dependency on vaping. In order to create a supportive and inclusive environment for mental health, LaDonna says her main goal is to create a presence in the school. She is a familiar face in the hallways, and says eating lunch with the kindergarteners is her favorite part of each day.
In fact, Hmong International Academy’s leadership say “what an amazing addition Ms. LaDonna has been to our HIA community both for the students she serves and how she is a constant and positive presence for others around the building. Our students have formed quick, positive relationships with her and we have seen growth for them in their ability to self-regulate and work through their challenging situations. In addition, other students who do not have the pleasure of working with her have gravitated towards her as well, as she is ever-present in the hallways, our school lunchroom, and during some transition times.”
As a mental health professional, LaDonna knows the importance of monitoring her own mental health and wellbeing. In order to balance her role with her own self-care, she says she focuses on body check-ins and taking intentional time to monitor her own feelings. When things become overwhelming, she said she leans on her Clinical Supervisor, David Hesse, for support.
David has been with Change Inc. since 2010 and is a school-based mental health therapist at Marcy School for the Arts in Minneapolis. He is also a clinical supervisor and LaDonna is one of his clinician supervisees. The two have formed a close relationship and David is especially proud of LaDonna’s work at HIA. LaDonna rose to the occasion and David says “She didn't just step into the role of a primary provider as a site lead, but she's really building a very firm foundation for her style of leadership of her clinical work, and of being a primary provider at the school.”
Her greatest strength, David says, is that she has a great mind about helping others. LaDonna takes pride in building strong connections and relationships. She works relationally as well as systemically, not just focusing on the kids’ needs, but also the families’ needs as a whole. She recognizes that mental health is intertwined with various aspects of a student’s life, including their academic performance, social interactions, and family dynamics. In understanding these interconnected factors, LaDonna works to provide comprehensive support that addresses the root cause of mental health challenges that students are facing.
LaDonna says that some of the ways she stays up to date with the latest mental health challenges of students is getting tuned into what kids are being exposed to. She hears an awful lot about Tik Tok from students these days and tries to keep familiar with what’s going around on social media as it has such a large (and often negative) impact on mental health, even in younger kids.
While there continues to be a stigma around receiving help for mental health concerns, even in 2023, the work LaDonna is providing is making a difference. By addressing mental health challenges early on, she plays a crucial role in shaping the well-being of students, enabling them to reach their full potential and become resilient. As shown by the praises of HIA’s leadership about LaDonna, schools that invest in mental health services see every day the profound impact it has on students’ lives and the importance of fostering a supportive environment.
This spring, the first Change Inc. Founders’ Luncheon was held at The Depot in Minneapolis to honor the founders of Change Inc. and Sister Giovanni Gourhan of GAP School. This was the first in-person event held since the beginning of the pandemic and it was wonderful to celebrate with others again.
The luncheon event began with a welcome from Change Inc.’s Executive Director, Jody Nelson, and Change Inc. Board Chair, Delta Larkey. While lunch was served, music was provided by Mitch Walking Elk, retired Coordinator for the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society.
Each of the founders were honored by individuals who have known them for many decades. Richard Mammen was honored by Sharon Sayles Belton, former Mayor of Minneapolis. Sister Giovanni Gourhan of GAP School was honored by Karen Thompson. Gary Miller was honored by Jo-Anne Stately. And Jim Nelson was honored by Spike Moss. Read more on each of our founders below.
Richard Mammen was a founder and former co-president of Change Inc. (1993 -2019), retiring to facilitate the merger of Change Inc. with Guadalupe Alternative Programs. During his long career Richard also served as Chair/Director of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Board of Education (2011-15), Citywide Recreation Director of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (2005-10); and he was the founding Executive Director of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board (1986-93). Through Change Inc. Mammen has been involved in creating, developing and sustaining numerous innovative programs for community youth development in juvenile justice, alternative education, youth employment and entrepreneurship, and youth leadership and empowerment.
Gary Miller brought to the founding of Change Inc. experience in research, evaluation, and policy and issues analysis. He has had an abiding interest in urban issues and efforts to ameliorate poverty and racism throughout his career. With degrees in sociology from Harvard and the University of Minnesota, Dr. Miller spent the first decade of his career in teaching and research and the second decade directing grant making at the United Way, The Saint Paul Foundation and The Minneapolis Foundation. In 1988, Miller joined The City Inc. to examine inner-city programs, community development, and cultural healing through the Project on Urban Poverty. Through Change Inc., Gary continued to consult on community development projects until his retirement.
Jim Nelson came from Missouri to the Twin Cities in the 1970s to attend Luther Seminary where he earned a Doctorate of Ministry leading to his ordination as a Baptist Minister. In 1979, he became Executive Director of The City, Inc., a community-based organization that led the field in providing services for gang-involved young people, families, and communities in the 80s. Concurrently, he earned a Ph.D. from Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and became a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and State Board Approved Supervisor. Nelson joined Mammen and Miller to found Change Inc. in 1993. In the past thirty years, he has developed master’s and doctoral programs in marriage and family therapy, taught in various graduate programs, presented, and trained therapists and teachers locally and nationally.
Guadalupe Area Project was founded in 1967 by Sister Giovanni Gourhan and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Catholic Order of Sisters to which she belonged. Concerned about the number of high school dropouts hanging out on Concord Avenue, the Sisters purchased a house near Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on St. Paul’s West Side in which to provide after-school activities for West Side youth. Sister G, being the force she was, developed the program into an alternative high school and replaced the small house with the 4-story school building that continues her work today. The name of the organization was changed to Guadalupe Alternative Programs, which merged with Change Inc.
A video featuring current employees from Change Inc. was then shared to encapsulate what Change Inc. means to so many. Director of Community Solutions, Corey Byrd, spoke to Change Inc.’s mission and its impact in the community. To finish the event, Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey, was in attendance and provided closing remarks. He shared great stories of his interactions with some of both our founders and speakers and spoke of the great work being done in our community thanks to Change Inc. It was an inspiring way to connect the beginnings of Change Inc. to present day.
The Founders’ Luncheon served as a reunion for many, and a re-introduction into the many facets of the work and programming Change Inc. manages for all. Not only did it serve as a tribute to the visionary individuals who laid the foundation for Change Inc. and GAP School’s success, but it ignited a sense of gratitude and admiration among those in the audience. It is hoped that the event served as a revitalization of the spirit of unity and purpose as Change Inc. carries forward our founders’ legacies for years to come. Look for information on next year’s event as this is planned to become an annual affair to bring awareness and raise the ever-important funding needed to fuel Change Inc.’s mission.