HARLEM — Michael Parker, 22 years old with no high school diploma, was slowly being engulfed by the drugs and violence that had left many of his friends either dead or in prison.
"I wasn't a drug dealer but my friends were," said Parker, now 32. "I was putting in applications every day but I couldn't find a job. Then, my friend said, 'You have potential, come to YouthBuild.'"
First launched in East Harlem in 1978, Youth Action YouthBuild East Harlem helps young people ages 16 to 24 get their GED and earn construction certification, all while renovating affordable housing developments and performing community service.
Parker's GED is one of many that hangs on the walls of the offices at 118th Street between Second Avenue and Third Avenue where he now serves as the transitional director. He lives with his three young sons in a building that he helped to renovate with YouthBuild, just down the street.
But now that he has gotten his life together, Parker is worried that an expected loss of $1 million in federal funding over the next two years due to federal budget cuts will make it more difficult for other young people to thrive.
"Why are they cutting programs that teach young people that dropped out of high school to change their lives and become responsible citizens?" asked Parker.
Federal sequestration cuts mean that programs like YouthBuild, which grew from East Harlem into a national and international model with 273 sites in the country and 23 pilot and planning programs around the world, face an 8 percent drop in funding in addition to regular ongoing budget cuts.
Federal funding for the YouthBuild programs was cut by 37 percent in 2011. It is estimated that the program will lose a third of its funding since 2010, with up to $83 million in cuts for fiscal year 2013.
For executive director David Calvert, who helped launch YouthBuild 34 years ago, that means he may be able to accept half of the 35 young people he normally enrolls each year. The site receives more than 500 applications per year.
It could also mean that instead of taking young people up to age 24, they may have to lower the age limit to 20 years old. Those accepted into the program may not receive the stipends or funding that benefited previous participants.
"You have hundreds of organizations that want to do this difficult but important work and you have hundreds of youth who need these services. We are asking the government to step in and help narrow the opportunity gap," Calvert said.
Supporters of YouthBuild say the program is caught in a federal tug of war between political parties on Capitol Hill.
"The shameful federal sequestration is unfortunately touching so many of our government and nonprofit agencies," said East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who supports the program.
"Our communities continue to be held hostage by members of Congress who have made the failure of President Obama's agenda their main objective."
In April, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand gathered the signatures of 29 fellow Senate Democrats on a letter to the chairs of the appropriation and labor subcommittee urging them to fund the program at $102.5 million for fiscal year 2014.
Gillibrand called the program a "critical opportunity for young people who left high school without a diploma to get a second chance....to succeed in today's workforce."
Late last month, the U.S. Department of Labor listed $72 million in YouthBuild grants to 68 programs in 33 states. Four YouthBuild programs in upstate New York received funding while two in Harlem and three others in the South Bronx, Queens and Long Island were not funded.
The loss of funding couldn't come at a worse time because of impending changes to the cost and difficulty of the GED test starting in 2014, said Sharlene Lawrence who heads workforce development for the Abyssinian YouthBuild in Central Harlem.
"Now we have to look elsewhere for funding," she said.
Reps for the U.S. Department of Labor declined to comment.
At the East Harlem YouthBuild's graduation last week, 36 people received their GED's or some sort of construction certification. They had each completed over 600 hours of community service, including helping the state to clean up from Hurricane Sandy.
Some were headed to college and others out into the work world. For many, it was the chance to wear a cap and gown that they missed at their high school graduations.
Kenneth Salmon, 23, who graduated with construction certification, recalled how he was selling drugs and in trouble with the law before joining YouthBuild. Not long after he found out his girlfriend was pregnant with his daughter.
Salmon held a night job while working at YouthBuild. Parker said he knew Salmon was determined to succeed because some mornings he would come in straight from work and ask for 20 minutes of sleep and some coffee rather than be absent.
The other student graduation speaker, 19-year-old Melany Gonzalez, dropped out of high school after spending too much time socializing in the hallways.
A year later she has her GED and is headed to the Fashion Institute of Technology where her goal is to become the next Michael Kors.
"They changed me," she said. "There are other students like me that need that help."