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Operation Fresh Start Hosts YouthBuild Midwest Regional Convening

Operation Fresh Start (OFS) welcomed attendees of the 2024 YouthBuild Midwest Regional Convening to Madison on June 20-21 where more than 60 people shared best practices, resources, and strategies to support the young people they serve. OFS was honored to host the convening in partnership with YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit support center for over 280 YouthBuild programs nationwide. The first day began on the campus of UW-Madison with John Valverde, CEO of YouthBuild USA, addressing attendees and a day full of training. Day Two started with a construction site visit for attendees and YouthBuild USA board members with learning sessions at OFS in the afternoon. 

YouthBuild programs are for young adults between the ages of 16-24 who are neither in school nor employed to build the skillsets and mindsets that lead to lifelong learning, livelihood, and leadership. Responding to the urgent need for knowledge, training, and opportunity, YouthBuild primarily serves young people who lack a high school diploma and financial resources. 

A highlight for attendees was touring a home that OFS participants are building from the ground up in Sun Prairie. YouthBuild USA Board Vice Chair Kathy Witsil was one of the attendees on the tour. 

“I’m super impressed with the management of both the leaders and the participants through the various programs at OFS," Kathy said. “To have projects like this where they gain those skills are very important, as well as having supervisors that value the education as much as the skills.” 

One OFS participant, Dez, spoke on the tour about his experience building the house. He talked about the great working environment and that he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes when learning new skills. He also referred to his crew as his “family” and how they care for one another.  

“What I love about him is his enthusiasm in the work he’s doing and the attitude he carries,” Kathy said. “He sees this as a learning opportunity and isn’t afraid to make mistakes and learn from it. That is one of the biggest lessons in life.”  

She praised OFS as “this is one of the most robust programs I’ve ever seen,” while adding that she loves that there are many different programs for different pathways in addition to construction for participants to find their passion. 

OFS is proud to be a YouthBuild program and was thrilled to host this two-day event with four keynote speakers and eight additional presentations led by OFS staff and partners. Our first keynote speaker, Jim Conway, has over 25 years of experience providing training and consultation to youth-serving professionals and volunteers in educational and community-based organizations. He presented on major research and training that he found with Search Institute.  

Jim taught attendees about the power of developmental relationships which benefit young people to powerfully learn and develop. Through his work with Search Institute, he defined developmental relationships as "close connections through which young people discover who they are, gain the ability to shape their own lives, and learn how to interact with and contribute to the world around them." 

Through engaging interactive lessons, Jim explained the extensively researched five central actions to developmental relationships: express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities. 

He then had participants reflect on these actions, share which actions they felt were most important, and identify which ones they used in their own programs. Jim offered tips on how to put these concepts into action, such as active listening and positive messaging. He emphasized that "listening is a gift," and a strong way to emphasize care is to actively listen and repeat phrases back to the person talking to you. 


Jim's presentation was followed up by Nick Yakovich, a licensed psychologist with more than 25 years of experience providing treatment, evaluations, program development, research, and consultation in private, civil, and correctional settings. 


His presentation explored the evolving brain of adolescence and the implications for behaviors and decision-making. Nick talked about various parts of the brain and the science behind why young people think and behave the way they do. He shared a study conducted at the McLean Hospital of Massachusetts that examined how adult and adolescent brains react to different photographic images using an MRI device. While adults reacted with the part of the brain responsible for logical decision-making (prefrontal cortex), adolescents were more likely to tap into the amygdala, the emotional epicenter located farther back in the brain. 

“This can explain why adolescents seem to experience frequent mood swings,” Nick said. “They tend to react quickly from the emotional part of their brain without running those reactions by the more rational frontal cortex.” 


He added that while portions of the adolescent brain are slower to develop, their nucleus accumbens, or “pleasure and reward zone,” forms early on.  


On Day Two, OFS welcomed keynote speakers Robin Matchett-Schmidt and Dan Terrio. Robin is a licensed clinical social worker who presented on how to support young adults impacted by trauma. In addition to image scans of adolescent brains, Robin had two volunteers attempt to "wire a brain" together with straws and pipe cleaners to demonstrate the impact of trauma and toxicity on a young person's development.   


Robin also discussed epigenetics and how our DNA is wired with preexisting trauma and anxiety that we inherited from our mothers and grandmothers. To counter this, she explained that we must “establish clear objectives, limits, and enforcing consequences.”  


She stated that “no one can make an adolescent do anything they do not choose to do,” and that “by setting limits you are offering choices. The adolescent ultimately chooses the consequence." Therefore, adults are not responsible for the adolescent’s behavior, but for “providing the structure which outlines the choices available.”  

Additionally, she taught the three R’s designed to help a vulnerable child learn, think, and reflect: regulate, relate, and reason. This includes regulating and calming the young person’s fight/flight/freeze responses, relating and connecting with them through an attuned and sensitive relationship, and supporting them to reflect, learn, remember, articulate, and become self-assured. 


Dan, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director of Milwaukee County, followed Robin with a presentation about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 


He defined intersectionality as “a theoretical framework that examines how various social identities such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and others intersect and interact to create unique experiences of oppression or privilege.” 


Dan pointed out that many Millennials and Generation Z place a higher value on diversity, equity, and inclusion.


“These are the generations more likely to expect workplaces to recognize and address the complexities of their intersecting identities,” Dan said. “They often will seek out employers who demonstrate a commitment to social justice and who understand the nuances of their intersectional experiences.”   


He provided historical, cultural, and institutional context of intersectionality and how employers can create a more inclusive, desirable workplace for young people. Dan’s tips to achieve a more inclusive work environment include checking anti-discrimination policies to protect people’s identities, providing needs-based support such as financial aid and mental health services, and improving accessibility in physical and digital environments to ensure they are accessible to all. 


In addition to keynotes, OFS staff provided an in-depth view of what contributes to our success in empowering young people, from building a ladder for success and attaining driver’s licenses, to crew culture and attaining partnerships in education. One highlight from these presentations showcased the partnership between OFS and the Madison Metropolitan School District, which allows our Legacy participants to earn their high school diplomas – something that many YouthBuild attendees said is rare.  


OFS expresses gratitude to everyone who was involved in making the YouthBuild USA Midwest Regional Convening a tremendous success! Thanks to the YouthBuild USA team for making the convening possible and for supporting us in Madison!  


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