Teens learn about faith through weatherstripping

January 13, 2011

By Lynette Kalsnes

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(WBEZ/Samuel Vega)
Teens from Barbershop Rap weatherize homes to help people save money on heating bills and to save energy.
Church elders and environmentalists are working together on Chicago's South Side. They hope to show teens there's a link between faith and saving the earth while helping them grow into responsible men. Their method involved weatherstripping.
 
About 20 young men sat on folding chairs in the fellowship hall at Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church. Tools of the barber trade got more than the traditional use here this cold night. Church elder, Clifton Wilkes, showed the young men how to put plastic on a window frame to keep out cold air. He slowly moved a blow dryer across the plastic, and the teens watched as the wrinkles disappeared, and the plastic became as smooth as glass.
 
Wilkes passed the pane around so students could get a closer look. He invited them to thump lightly on the surface.
 
"See how tight it is?" Wilkes asked. "Don't punch a hole in it. Just see how tight it is."

The environment trumped the usual topics of family, school and teen problems here at Barbershop Rap. Teens meet monthly with adult male mentors, who show them how to become responsible men.

Wilkes said they wanted to perform a volunteer service for the community. So they partnered with Faith in Place, a group that works with congregations to promote sustainability.
Rev. Bernard Clark said they want teens to see how faith is tied to the environment.

"God blessed us with the Earth," Rev. Clark said. "Man, in his infinite wisdom has begun to do things that are destroying the Earth. So what it does is teach the young people how to go green, how to begin to help replenish the Earth."

"The ecological divide is wide," said Veronica Kyle, who's with Faith in Place. "Most people in the African-American community on an average day-to-day basis are not dealing with environmental ecological concerns. People are too busy dealing with the skills of the survival pyramid, you know, 'Let me take care of my family, I'm doing the best I can, yes, Al Gore, what does that mean to me?  I'm not gonna have an $80 organic T-shirt, no, I can't afford organic vegetables.' But that's just one sliver of the movement."

Weatherization is another. Kyle wants to show there are ways to save energy and save money for very little cost. She observed as the lesson continued. Several minutes went by, and some teens started chatting and getting out of their chairs. One of the mentors noticed and motioned toward Kyle:

"Listen, with you all doing this? Seriously, act like young men, act like young men," the mentor told them. "Act like you're interested."

"As a matter of fact, when I ask the mentors who were the shining stars, it's not just who installed the most kits, it's who had the best attitude, who had the best work ethic," Kyle said. "Every time we get summer job opportunities, we contact your mentors and say, 'Hey, we have jobs.' As a matter of fact, right now, I have six job openings, right now."

The young men sat up and paid attention.

Rev. Clark said weatherproofing will earn them some money. It may change attitudes toward them, too.

"This weatherization piece allows these young people an opportunity to go into homes of senior citizens and other adults in the community who otherwise might read the paper, watch the news, and think all young people are thugs, gang bangers, drug dealers, and whatever," Rev. Clark said. "They're like 'Wow, they're so intelligent, they're so nice, they're so generous'."

The teens put their skills to work several days later. Five of them headed out to work on apartments in the neighborhood.

They approached Joyce Williams' apartment, and asked what she needed to be done. Williams told them she had air seeping in around her doors. The young men sealed the gaps.
 
"See, you can put your hand here, and there won't be no wind coming through," one of the teens told Williams.

"Hope I save money on my heat now, that heating bill is (exclamatory sound). It's very high," Williams said.
 
The teens headed out the door toward the next apartment.
 
"Thank you all," Williams said. "Have a blessed day."
"Thank you," a teen said, adding, "Stay warm."
Williams closed the door behind them, still saying, "Thank you," and then, "God bless."

One of the teens, 15-year-old Darrieon Gunn, said the project has helped him gain job skills and confidence.

"It took me to a whole other level, because now I'm feeling so good about myself, me helping other people, me knowing I'm making them happier and I'm making them warm," he said.
All together, Gunn and the other teens in Barbershop Rap weatherproofed about 100 homes. 
 
They were part of a larger effort by Faith in Place that weatherized more than 600 houses and apartments.

NOTE: WBEZ Pritzker Journalism Fellow Samuel Vega contributed to this story.