Build UP is changing young people’s lives in Ensley. How you can help.

Build UP participants in action.
Build UP in action. Photo from Build UP via Facebook

When I was working on a piece about Ensley, a colleague sent me this news clip on Build UP, and I knew we had to feature them here. You’re gonna love this program.

What is Build UP?

Build UP participants in Ensley.
Build UP participants. Photo by Virginia Jones

Here’s what founder Mark Martin had to say:

It’s both a high school and a workforce development program. We take young people from high schoolers to homeowners and landowners.

Build UP equips participants with career-ready skills in construction and real estate.

We expose them to a lot. They get work experience, and they get paid to learn a trade or get direction in where they want to go in their careers.

It doesn’t matter if they stay in construction or become a doctor or a nurse, they learn useful skills, including plumbing, electrical, roofing and framing.

Build UP aims to set kids up for success in their adult lives. Equity ownership in both their home and rental property helps them begin to build wealth, but it’s not just about personal wealth. As a group, they are also charged with stabilizing and revitalizing their neighborhood.

Who’s involved?

Build UP team.
The Build UP staff. Mark Martin is on the left-hand side of the back row, and Ruben Morris is on the right-hand side of the back row. Photo from Build UP website

While there’s a whole team involved, Mark Martin is the founder, and Ruben Morris is the Program Director.

Mark Martin, Build UP CEO

Mark Martin is Build UP's CEO.
Mark Martin, Build UP CEO

Mark Martin majored in finance at the University of Alabama. After graduation, he went to work as a first grade teacher in the most incarcerated zip code in Georgia.

On his journey in education, he began to develop a “deeper understanding of all inequities of schooling and educational systems, especially for the most marginalized students.”

He realized that “within four walls, there are so many levers and tools to pull on to impact change. There were so many kids coming in with things that we tend to throw our hands in the air with. So schools provide breakfast and lunch, but can’t do anything about what they eat on the weekend, or what kids have on their table over the Summer.”

After a while, he “gave up on the premise that we can’t impact those things, and realized we needed to create a new model.”

With Build UP,

For every hour young people are working, they are being paid. When their families fall on hard times, they can help put food on the table. They can save money for a car so they can hold jobs in the South because public transportation is practically nonexistent.

While other nonprofits work on some of these things, we tie it all together: housing, workforce skills and education. We make sure balls don’t get dropped, because when one ball gets dropped, people fall right back into poverty.”

Ruben Morris, Build UP Program Director

Ruben Morris is Build UP's Program Director.
Ruben Morris, Build UP Program Director

Ruben Morris is the Program Director. He grew up in Birmingham and went to Shades Valley a year behind Mayor Woodfin. Next, he played football at Morehouse, then went into nontraditional education. He taught with Teach for America in Houston and Atlanta, did some affordable housing work in Atlanta, some education work in Denver.

Like Mark Martin, he left the state for more than a decade, and wanted to come back and make a difference in Birmingham. 16 months ago, Mark and Ruben partnered, and it’s been a great partnership, with each complementing the other.

The difference Build Up makes

A Build UP participant.
Build UP participant. Photo by Virginia Jones

Build UP has young people with them for 6 years, and in that time, they earn a lot:

  • a high school diploma (the program actually runs an accredited high school),
  • a home (often moved and rehabbed from other, more affluent neighborhoods where people would otherwise tear homes down for new construction),
  • associates degree—they partner with Lawson State and online providers,
  • a path to the middle class before graduation:this could mean gaining a position with a partner organization; launching their own business with a business plan, capital funding and financing behind it; doing an associates’ degree (for example, two years at Lawson State doing electrical work) followed by a 4-year bachelors’ degree (such as electrical engineering at Alabama).

They’re training people to help rebuild their community, with strong character building, history and role modeling components as well.

How you can support Build UP

Build UP participants in front of a home in Ensley.
Build Up participants in front of a home. Photo supplied

So, to help, Build UP needs support:

  • Mentors—people who look like the kids in the program and those who don’t.
  • Tutors—many of the kids are stuck in a bad schooling system and come to the program way behind.
  • Materials—if someone is renovating their home or remodeling their kitchen and has, for example, perfectly good high-end cabinets or countertops, Build Up can save the cost of labor and the cost of getting rid of it by sending someone to take that out and repurpose it (also saves room in a dumpster and gives kids great exposure to what having financial means can make possible in a home).
  • Homes—when people in wealthier parts of town are thinking of tearing down a perfectly good home to make way for new construction, they can contact Build Up. They can move the home and fix it up it to become a starter home for youth.

If you think Build UP’s work is as cool as we do, and you want to support them in any way, click here or email them at

Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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