Building boats helps youth offenders build confidence and job skills

Alexandria Seaport Foundation apprentices learn construction, math and other skills as they work together to build one of the program’s boats.

An innovative wooden boatbuilding program in Alexandria, Va. helps young people, many of whom have been incarcerated, gain the skills, confidence and knowledge needed to prepare them for employment.

Operated by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, the program offers paid apprenticeships to 18- to 22-year-olds, who not only learn to build boats and wooden furniture but also are taught academic subjects.

About 48 mostly young men, with an occasional woman, participate in the program each year. Some 50 to 60 percent of them have been through the court system. They usually learn about the program from their parole officer or from a former participant.

The apprenticeship program operates from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and lasts approximately six to eight months. Apprentices rotate between the academic classroom, hands-on math instruction and the boatbuilding shop. The hands-on math curriculum teaches them the math skills needed for boatbuilding and carpentry work, and in the shop they learn to use tools and basic carpentry skills.

Each apprentice is handled on an individual basis, depending on their academic background, and those who have not graduated from high school are given extra academic instruction so they can pass the GED exam.

Learning life and social skills

Apprentices also learn the sort of life skills necessary to be a member of the workforce. “It’s a paid apprenticeship program. They’re learning to be there on time, do projects and write the reports on those projects, and learn how to have a good attitude,” says Kathy Seifert, the organization’s director of development.

“We try to emulate the real world. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get their pay docked. There’s a lot of life-skill and social-skill training. We also have an enrichment program on Fridays, where we teach them everything from banking to car repairs. We even had a session on nutrition and eating habits.”

Applicants take a test that measures their ability in reading, writing and math and go through an interview process. They then have to complete a three-week screening trial period before being accepted into the program.

The apprentices work on small and large projects, depending on their skill level and where they are in the program. Some of them are in the process of completing a new 30-foot Potomac River dory boat and beginning to build another.

This month the foundation launched its whaleboat project, in which it will build a 28-foot whaleboat for the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn. Once completed, it will join a fleet of whaleboats that will sail to historic ports along with the Charles W. Morgan – the last remaining whale ship – when it is relaunched in the summer of 2014 after being restored.

Under a new Alexandria Seaport Foundation venture known as Seaport Woodworks, apprentices also are building Adirondack chairs and other outdoor furniture.

Once they complete the program, the foundation helps them get a job. “When the economy was great, we guaranteed them a job, but that’s not the case anymore, especially for construction,” says Seifert.

“We do everything we can to get them a job or hold them here until we find them one. It’s not just construction and carpentry. We’ve had kids go into restaurants; they’ve gotten jobs at a local plumber. We give them a sense of self-esteem and the ability to know that they can make it in the world. It’s the project-based learning that seems to be the catalyst for these kids getting it together.”

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