NYA Youths Speak for Themselves - 1938
Many NYA youths speak out about their situation, their job at the NYA project, their family life, and their accomplishments. Often the National Youth Administration has helped them progress to pursuing their goal of employment or education.
In a poverty-stricken Kentucky mountain county, we met a 19-year-old NYA boy who went with us to see a remodeled school building.
"This is where I helped put in the new foundation," he said as he touched the concrete blocks. "And I worked on these windows, too. . .. Here's where I put in a new floor. . .." He showed us each part of the building on which he had worked.
"Did you ever do any of this kind of work before?" we asked him.
"Have you done any at home since you started in here?" we wanted to know.
"Well, you see, I'm living with a fellow and his wife," he said. (We subsequently learned that he was an orphan.) "And we're building us a new house. I'm showing him how. This fellow can't pay me but once in a while on account of he hasn't much work. But I get board and room."
We said we would like to see the new house, and the boy invited us to come with him. A few hundred yards away, we saw a small house nearly completed. It was the only dwelling in the town with a cistern. The wife pointed out bookshelves, which were likewise the only ones in a home in that community.
"See the electric?" the boy asked. We looked at the ceiling where there was an outlet. "We haven't got the electric yet," the boy went on, "but you know, we'll get it someday, and when you build a house you've got to make room for the electric or you have to almost rip it apart when you do get it."
(The writer of the following letter is a 22-year-old boy in a family of five children whose father has been a paralytic patient in a county hospital for several years. This boy has been a "problem" at grade school, in his home, and in his community.
He was first assigned to a NYA construction project. He did poor work. He was given another chance at a Resident Training Center, and, because he said he wanted to learn how to cook, he was assigned to the kitchen.)
I am now putting my time and Interest in Getting an Education. I am studding to Be a cook. I enjoy my course very much. The experience is helping me a 100%. I have been interested in my cooking course for 22 years.
I have always wanted to be a good cook. Now that I have the chance to be a cook, I am going to prove that I can. I am putting all of my interest in this special course which I have longed for 22 years and now that I have the everything in my power to Make a good cook out of myself, I cannot thank the National Youth Administration enough for what they are doing for me.
I have not had much education. I finished the 8th grade in grade school and I couldn't go to High School as my Mother need my support in keeping food and fuel in the house and now I have the opportunity to go to school and learn the Trade and course which I have always wanted. And I am going to make a good cook out of myself!
I want to thank the National Youth Administration for their support in getting me back to school to take the course of study which I have always wanted. I will prove my statement by pitching in at hitting the ball. [Note 1]
(The writer of this letter is a 23-year-old girl, one of ten children in a Southern sharecropper's family. The supervisor reports: "On many occasions her father has beaten her, her mother, and the other children when he came home drunk." This girl was assigned to a NYA library in a small town.)
I am the oldest child of the family so naturally I had to do without food and clothing that I really needed. . .. Now in every way I am in a better social position. Until about two months ago I paid six dollars a month for board.
Now I am paying five dollars. [Supervisor reports that she contributes work for remainder of board.] . . . Two weeks ago I rode my first time on the train. I went to —. While I was there, I purchased a coat, also while I was there, I rode my first time on an elevator.
Since I have been working for the NYA I have learned to use a telephone. I have learned to do errands. I can say unpleasant things in a pleasant way. I can remind people of their over-due books without hurting their feelings.
(Supervisor's Note: This orphan girl comes from a farming town of 1,100 in Southern Utah. The possibilities of her securing other than seasonal employment are remote.
Were the town larger or the population wealthier, she might enter domestic service, but she is an example of a youth backed up on a farm, where further training would be impossible were it not for NYA. The library is maintained only by NYA help and is indeed an important contribution to this small community.)
I have two sisters and one brother. We try to co-operate and help each other as best we can. Sometimes there isn't much help we can give. During the last part of November and the first part of December, I was employed as a waitress in a café.
I worked at this place for about four weeks. I think if they needed help at this time I could get back there. At the present time I have no connections that will help me get a job.
It seems my interest lies in library work. I have enjoyed my work at the library to the fullest extent. The money I have received from NYA has been used to a good advantage. I clothe myself and buy groceries for the home.
(The writer of this letter is a 20-year-old girl who had high marks in her commercial courses in high school.)
I am writing this letter to thank you and the NYA for helping me find a steady job and at the same time win back my self- confidence. A year ago when I graduated from — High School, I, like all the others, began to search for employment.
I failed to find any- thing at all until last December when I got a NYA job two days a week at the State Employment Service. I had been trying to get in the – Watch Company but couldn't because my neck had been deformed when I was nine years old.
I became discouraged because everything looked so hopeless. Through your assistance and the NYA it was possible for me to take treatments on my neck. These have helped me beyond words.
As soon as the employment authorities at the watch factory noticed the improvement, they decided to hire me and I started May 17. I also do some office work there which has been made easier for me because of my office training at the State Employment Service.
(This letter was written by a 22-year-old Spanish-American boy in New Mexico. The sister of whom he speaks has four small children. The boy worked in a NYA woodworking shop while attending high school.)
As I look into the book of the past, I find that I was born under great poverty, and a weakling. Misfortune was born with me, because I have been quite weak since I contracted pneumonia at the age of one.
During the influenza epidemic in 1918 my mother was taken away with that terrible wave of death. Since then my oldest sister has been a mother to me. Following the death of my mother my sister took care of the whole family of six who were all young and unable to care for ourselves.
In 1920 my father married for the second time; trouble started soon after, because of misunderstandings between the two families, inequality of ideas. In 1921 my oldest sister got married, so I went to live with her.
In 1930 I had completed my grade school course and had no desire to go to high school because my father under foreign influence did not approve of higher learning. That year passed by me with great unhappiness, for I had nothing to do but pick cotton. While I was working in the fields a longing came to me to return to school.
It wasn't very long before I got a job in a boarding house earning a dollar a day and board. I continued to work for sixteen months, and all this time I was saving a little money with hopes of returning to school.
Before February of 1934 was ended the manager of the boarding house moved away so I lost my job. I then had to return home again and was out of a job for the next month.
In April of that year I was fortunate enough to get another job at a filling station earning twenty-five cents a day and lodging. I worked there through the summer and the manager encouraged me to return to school and offered to give me a part-time job. When the fall came, I started to go to school again. Since then I have been very fortunate in getting part-time jobs and a little outside help.
The first year of my high school career passed in great happiness. In the summer of 1934, I was taken down by sudden illness which kept me in bed for a whole month and withdrew me from earning any money that summer.
I am very grateful to my oldest sister who was so generous in taking care of me during that time and provided for the continuance of my schooling the next fall. Speaking of great people, I think that she is the greatest person I have ever known.
I was able to complete my first two high school terms and was on my way with the third when I lost my job at the filling station, because of a change in management. I wasn't entirely out of a job then, because I still had a number of odd jobs.
About the tenth of April of 1937 I enrolled under the NYA. This job has been a blessing to me because it has helped me a lot in my school work, and besides it has taught me a trade that is both beneficial and interesting to do as an entertainment.
This NYA has helped me and also my sister's family whose sole support was through my brother-in-law who earns an average of about $20.00 a month.
(The supervisor reports that since writing this letter, this young woman, one of a family of eight, has obtained private employment.)
I wish to thank you through the NYA for assisting me over a few rough spots by giving me employment on a NYA program. I graduated from high school in 1936, a typical American girl, eager and confident of my prowess to work and do my work well. I had received typing awards and shorthand certificates to further my confidence. . ..
I visited the employment agencies regularly and got that so impersonal smile and "nothing for you today." A year . . . what a time to pass through when you're young and are willing and eager to work and no one wanting those services. It was when our family difficulties were at its lowest ebb that I received NYA aid. . ..
To be able to have my hands and mind occupied; to get out of that mental rut; to know that I earned my carfare and lunch money and to be able to hand my check over to my mother . . . there's no describing that feeling.
(The following letter is from a Negro girl in Florida.)
When I obtained work on the NYA my mind was greatly troubled, thinking that we were going to be put out of the house which we rented due to the fact that we had no way of paying the rent. By the help of the NYA I am enabled to pay the rent.
My grandmother and I were in great distress before I obtained work. I am learning a trade which will be a benefit to me in time to come. Before I obtained work on the NYA, I was almost blind in one eye and due to financial conditions, I was not able to buy proper glasses.
Before going to work I was badly in need of dresses and by the help of the NYA I can buy them. I also am learning to make dresses for myself. Before going to work I could not sew. I know if I continue to work, I will be a good seamstress.
(This letter was written by a NYA girl in the Kentucky mountains and was printed in the Licking Valley Courier.)
Pomp, Ky., Jan. 27, 1938.
Dear Mr. Whitt:
You asked me what the NYA has meant to me. It has meant everything to me and my brother. My mother died eight years ago, and my father died in August 1936 and left six of us children at home. I am the oldest and my youngest sister is twelve.
Neither my brother or I had ever had a job and the NYA is the only jobs we have ever had. He earns $13.00 a month and I earn $10.00 a month. This money has enabled us to provide for our other two brothers and two sisters. We rent a home from Ben Cox.
We use our money to buy clothing and groceries for us all. Alice is 12 and goes to school. Tommy is 13 and goes to school. Maudie is 16 and stays at home and does the housework. Matthew is 18 and stays at home and works. Jessie is 21 and works in the NYA shops at West Liberty.
I work in the sewing project and get $10.00 a month. I enjoy the work and like our new supervisor, Mrs. Price. She is good to us and is not contrary with us. I have learned a lot about sewing and can make anything I want to. It has been a lot of help to me as I can buy goods and make clothing for the other children much cheaper than we can buy them made.
Yours very truly,
Note 1: Spelling Errors Corrected to Improve Ease of Reading.
Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "NYA Youths Speak for Themselves." in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 149-155.