‘A Good Life is Possible’: At-Risk Youth Find Opportunities With Fresh Start Program

‘A Good Life is Possible’: At-Risk Youth Find Opportunities With Fresh Start Program


By Julian Emerson

September 1, 2021

Program participants finished building a house for a low-income family this week.

When Ginger Liddell entered the Western Dairyland Fresh Start program in May, her life seemed to be headed on anything but a successful track.

The 17-year-old had dropped out of school two years earlier, had substance abuse issues, and found herself in juvenile detention and facing felony charges.

“I was not on a good path,” Liddell, of Chippewa Falls, said. “I didn’t have any direction in life, at least not a good direction.”

Since becoming a part of Fresh Start, Liddell’s life has taken a significant turn for the better. She has obtained her high school diploma, graduating early, and is now enrolled in Chippewa Valley Technical College. She said she hopes to go on to further schooling and one day obtain her doctoral degree so she can work as an addiction counselor.

Liddell credits her newfound success and positive outlook to Fresh Start. The program enrolls 15 to 20 people ages 17 to 24 from west-central Wisconsin each year, providing them help with everything from getting their driver’s license to diplomas. 

“This program has made a huge, positive difference for me,” Liddell said shortly after a ceremony Tuesday in which she and other Fresh Start participants spoke about the program. “The people involved with this program told me I could do better. They gave me the push I needed, and they held me accountable to doing better.”

As part of Fresh Start, participants build homes that are then sold to people facing income barriers, building confidence and job skills in the process. Western Dairyland Community Action Agency oversees construction of the houses and helps secure additional loans for the people who live in them, adding much-needed affordable housing in west-central Wisconsin. The agency celebrated the building of one of those homes Tuesday in Fall Creek.

To qualify to live in one of the Fresh Start homes, people can make no more than 80% of the region’s median income. Since 1998 Fresh Start participants have helped build 26 homes and remodel several others in Fall Creek, Altoona, and in locations in Buffalo and Jackson counties.

In addition to building homes for people in need, Fresh Start offers classroom instruction, counseling, and job-search assistance. The program focuses on building students’ self-esteem and helping them become self-sufficient, Western Dairyland officials said. 

As he supervises Fresh Start participants building homes, Luke Steffen, program construction site manager, said he enjoys watching them develop not only job skills but self-confidence. He acknowledged challenges building homes with young adults with no construction experience, and said Fresh Start homes typically take about a year to build compared to the three-month timeline for a typical construction crew.

Still, he said, participants typically step up to the task.

“The maturity level can change pretty fast,” Steffen said. “You see a lot of personal growth as they continue to do this work.” 

When those in the program finish a home, they feel a sense of pride, Steffen said. 

“They can stand back and say, ‘Look, I helped build that,’ ” Steffen said.

James Goheen II came to Fresh Start from Eau Claire Memorial High School in December. He credits helping build the house in Fall Creek with instilling in him a desire to work in construction as a career. 

'A Good Life is Possible': At-Risk Youth Find Opportunities With Fresh Start Program
James Goheen II said the Western Dairyland Fresh Start program not only has provided him with career direction but helped him turn his life around. “I might not be alive without this program,” he said. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

“Through this project, I realized I want to find another job in construction … It felt great building this house” and knowing that a family who needs it will live there, he said.

Liddell said she learned valuable skills helping build the house and is excited that it will be occupied by a family who otherwise couldn’t afford it. She said she helped paint and install cabinets and trim in the house along Jackson Avenue in Fall Creek.

“We wanted this home to be really nice for them,” she said of the house’s future occupants. “We wanted to do this to give back to the community.”   

Overcoming Challenges

Fresh Start participants typically have challenging backgrounds, and most need help obtaining their high school diplomas. Some deal with substance addiction, and some are homeless.

Helping them succeed requires intensive case management, said Katie Hulbert, housing and family services director for Western Dairyland, who directly oversaw Fresh Start for 10 years. The program has a relatively high cost for its enrollment, she said, noting this year it costs about $650,000 this year, including the construction of the house students helped build, or between $400,000 and $450,000 excluding house costs. 

“There is a financial cost to doing this,” Hulbert said. “But that investment is a big part of why we have success.”   

To boost the number of success stories, two years ago Fresh Start added a teacher and transition coordinator position to work more directly with students in obtaining their education. Jessica Ortiz has filled that role. She said the program’s strong working relationships with area schools and its flexibility to meet different student educational needs are keys to successful outcomes. 

“We are able to customize students’ education based on their different needs,” Ortiz said. “That is certainly one of our strengths.”   

Changing students’ mindsets to more positive outlooks is another aim of Fresh Start. Sometimes that comes through their exposure to other people and situations in the many volunteer situations they take part in as part of the program, Ortiz said. 

“It’s about exposure, about opening them up to the idea that successes are possible,” she said. 

Liddell credits an experience volunteering at an Eau Claire soup kitchen with inspiring her with wanting to help others. As she handed meals to two children, Liddell said, she suddenly found a purpose for herself that had been lacking.

“It felt good to help other people. I know now that is going to be me going forward,” she said. 

‘A Good Life’

Like Liddell, the 18-year-old Goheen II credits Fresh Start with offering him future opportunities he hadn’t realized were possible. In fact, he said, without the program, he may well not be alive. 

He and his family relocated from Texas to Eau Claire during his junior year of high school, he said, and his transition to life in his new location was a struggle. He had difficulty finding a job and felt his life spiraling downward. 

“I would probably be either arrested or at the bottom of a river,” he said matter-of-factly. “I am extremely grateful for this program. It is what I needed.”

After becoming part of Fresh Start, Goheen II obtained his high school diploma. His last day in the program was Tuesday, and he will soon begin a job building pallets in Eau Claire. 

Liddell is scheduled to remain in the program through next May. She said Fresh Start has given her a focus and aspirations she lacked previously. 

“I have a good direction now,” she said. “I have a plan. And I feel like a good life, the kind of life I want to live, is possible.”  


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