Snapshots: Casa Verde Builders

October 1, 2000

OBJECTIVE: To teach job and lifelong learning skills to out-of-school youth; to instill in participants a sense of responsibility for their future, for the success of the program and for the well being of their community; and to build energy-efficient, sustainable, low-income housing.

IN A NUTSHELL: Casa Verde Builders is an AmeriCorps/YouthBuild national volunteer service program run by the Austin-based American Youth Works, formerly American Institute for Learning (AIL). Seventeen- to 25-year-olds, most of whom are from low-income families, weatherize buildings and build ever-efficient affordable housing. YouthWorks then sells the houses to first-time home buyers who have received low-income loans. Like YouthBuild’s 75 other sites throughout the U.S., Casa Verde participants spend half of their time in on-site construction training activities and half in educational activities. The program centers on a strong youth development and leadership training component. Basic academic training is integrated with on-the-job skills training. All participants receive a GED or high school diploma by the time they complete the program.

WHERE IT HAPPENS: In low-income neighborhoods in East Austin.


WHO STARTED IT: When the focus of American Institute for Learning (AIL), was on GED and resume preparation, two youth workers, Chester Steinhauser, an AIL teacher and Richard Morgan, then construction manager at Habitat for Humanity, worked to get some of the youths to participate in a Habitat for Humanity construction project. That success inspired them to apply for a grant from the City of Austin Green Builder, a government agency, that allowed AIL to conduct its own building project. Inspired by the success of that project, they turned to the State Commission on Volunteering and Community Service for AmeriCorps funds and to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for YouthBuild funds. Morgan became construction manager at Casa Verde, and now directs Austin Green Builders.

WHO RUNS IT: American Youth Works is a private non-profit corporation providing comprehensive education, employment preparation and human services to youth dropouts and adults lacking basic skills. It is funded in part by the city of Austin and Austin/Travis County Private Industry Council. Including Coordinator Chester Steinhauser, there are 10 Casa Verde staff members.

EARLY OBSTACLES: Trials with environment-friendly building materials led to some initial difficulties because some were of shoddy quality. Another problem was recruitment and retention of at-risk youth. The primary reason people drop out of the program is that the stipend (approximately $40/day) is less than youths can be earning in low-skill jobs. And some youths isolated themselves or left because of personal issues such as being in a work crew with former rival gang members.

HOW THEY OVERCOME IT: Casa Verde worked more closely with the City of Austin Green Builders, which tests products, to make sure they were using good materials. An they found ways of combating the discouragement that leads to dropping out of the program, such as enabling members to attain certain levels of educational achievement before the end of the program and setting up an alumni association through which alumni can encourage doubtful program participants.

COST: $1.2 million per year.

WHO PAYS: Primarily AmeriCorp and HUD YouthBuild.

WHO ELSE HAS KICKED IN: The City of Austin, Home Depo, Pervasive Software and private foundations such as the Meadows Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Some proceeds from the sale of homes and weatherization services go back into the program.

YOUTH SERVED: More than 600 since the program’s inception. The majority (75 percent) are not in school when they start the program. About 66 percent are male. Most members have had little or no job experience. More than 70 percent have been involved with the criminal justice system. This year the program started with 112 participants (40 percent Caucasian, 40 percent Hispanic, 16 percent African American and 3 percent Native American), and 75 were still in the program last month.

YOUTH TURN-ON: “They enjoy each other,” says Chester Steinhauser, coordinator for AmeriCorps programs at American Youth Works. Most of them are strangers when they enter the program but soon they solve problems together and come to rely on each other.

YOUTH TURN-OFF: “Texas summers are hot!” says Dabney Oliver, Casa Verde’s marketing assistant. “And most of our work is done outside.”

WHAT STILL GETS IN THE WAY: Program administrators have a hard time keeping tabs on graduates to provide them with a support network, because the people they serve move around a lot and thus are difficult to keep up with.

CONTACT: Chester Steinhauser, Coordinator for AmeriCorps Programs, American Youth Works, 216 E. 4th St., Austin, TX 78701. (512) 472-3395 ext. 111. E-mail:

Boyle, Patrick. "Casa Verde Builders." Snapshots. Youth Today, October 2000, p. 12.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.