Pete Sarullo started Construction Ministries in Jackson, Miss., in an effort to provide the construction side to inner-city housing development while also helping the youth to better the neighborhoods.
Four visibly hungry youths approached Pete Sarullo looking for work as he rebuilt a burned-down house on Woodrow Wilson in Jackson, Miss., 10 years ago.
From that moment, Construction Ministries was born.
The nonprofit works with youth ages 16-20 for two to five years providing them with work, food and a place to live as necessary.
Sarullo, founder and executive director of Construction Ministries, used one young man as an example of how they do not have the opportunities to leave the areas they are born into.
"He looked out at the Reservoir and asked me if it was the Gulf of Mexico," Sarullo said. "He had never been out of the hood."
These youths work with Construction Ministries to repair and build houses for the elderly, poor, veterans and those with disabilities. While working for the ministry, they are required to continue their studies and stay out of trouble. They are apprenticed to experts on construction jobs, who teach them different skills, such as plumbing, carpentry and paneling.
Sarullo said Construction Ministries provides the construction side to inner-city housing development while also helping the youth to better the neighborhoods.
"That is how you bring the community back when you have people who are ambitious enough to become business people. Those people become leaders and those people hold themselves and their families to a higher standard," Sarullo said. "Once you have that ingrained in the community, along hopefully with the church, then you really have changed the type of person who lives there."
Construction Ministries' mission, according to its website, is "to teach responsibility, work ethic and social behavior while ensuring the participants finish their high school degrees, GED's, or a vocational/technical program that will prepare them for the work world."
Sarullo remembered one of the first teens whom he called an "inherently good kid." Sarullo said the teen was standing outside his house with his best friend waiting on their ride to school when a car pulled up and shot and killed his friend.
"It took him from just an outgoing athletic star to completely insecure — and trusted in nobody. He wouldn't even stay on a job site if I wasn't there with him."
Although the teen could not pass algebra to graduate from high school, he studied and got his GED at age 20. From there, he went to Hinds Community College. Sarullo said he did not see him for a few years.
Then, one day he was with his daughter who was in the hospital.
"It was a pretty dark time for me, but I looked up and I see this smiling face, and it's him and he's working for St. Dominic's — from somebody who could not get out of school.
"He's the one who came the furthest."
Sarullo, 57, from Greenville, said his program is not for everyone.
“It is for people who want to do better and are willing to do work,” he explained.
"I have kids who will walk two miles to work and beat me there," Sarullo said. "They want to be successful, they just have to have the opportunity to."
While the youth are employed by Construction Ministries, Sarullo checks on them every day. He usually has about one to four youths working with him.
Over the years, Sarullo has seen the young men leave his program and succeed and others fall away. But he only knows of one who went to prison.
Sarullo emphasizes that Construction Ministries is a springboard.
"I don't want them back. I want them gone, I want them making money and doing their own things," he said. "The important thing that I try to instill in them is that 'you need to stay in your community, you need to be successful and stay and bring your community up and not move away and let it go."
Sarullo is also the owner of Sarullo Homes and Sarullo Technology and Development. He said people will donate toilets, stoves and more to Construction Ministries from those job sites where remodeling is being done.
For about 10 years, Sarullo paid these young workers out of his own pocket.
Now partnering with other nonprofit organizations, Construction Ministries is expanding, working with Revitalize Mississippi, Voice of Calvary Ministries and Rosemont Missionary Baptist Church — whoever has property. Together they construct homes on lots these nonprofits own. They then place people in these homes who can afford the mortgage and/or are members of the church.
“Partners provide the construction-end of the inner city housing development scenario where I can take what I do, kids from the inner city, and put them to work.”
Sarullo said his overall goal is to "bring value back to west Jackson."
Earlier this month, the state announced a partnership with Revitalize Mississippi to restore blighted property. At the news conference, Jim Johnston, founder and president of Revitalize Mississippi, spoke about the importance of eliminating blight, which he called a "cancer," and rebuilding on the properties.
"If you don't get rid of the abandoned houses where drug and criminal activity is, then nothing is going to improve," he said.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba also spoke on the importance of improving Jackson neighborhoods.
"Taking away our blight is not only about the aesthetic appeal of our city, but it is about changing a culture," Lumumba said. "It is about changing a culture that is abandoned and tore down and rebuilding and moving towards the city that is not only a model for the state of Mississippi but a city that will be a model for the world."
Sarullo said the Construction Ministries concept he wrote four years ago to rebuild communities has received support from private investors in Canada, which furthers its impact around Jackson.
“Construction Ministries does the work, the investors put the money up and they essentially write the mortgage,” Sarullo said.
Under this process, Construction Ministries will help "bring value back" to the neighborhoods.
"That's what will make the inner cities come back. Homeownership and driving out the gangs, the drug people and the bad guys," Sarullo said.
He said bringing local churches in as partners and finding "good people" to fill the homes constructed is "the only way it's going to work."
“Until you make the church the integral and deciding factor, with church people, it's just not going to happen,” Sarullo said.
Sarullo's longtime goal is to see his program take root in cities across the United States. His private backers are investing in the model already in use in Jackson as a "trial model for the rest of the country," Sarullo said.
“We want to replicate this in inner cities all over the country," Sarullo said. "Jackson is the testing ground for this to work.”
“If we can make this work in Jackson, we can make this work in every city around the country,” Sarullo said.
You can view more stories about construction education on Construction Equipment Guide's website.
Source: The Clarion-Ledger