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Building Boats for Better Lives


The traditional skill of boat building is providing a fresh chance for some at risk youth in the United States. A non-profit organization just outside the U.S. capital city, reports a high success rate with its apprenticeship program. Malcolm Brown has more in today's searching for solutions report.

Just a short drive, or easy sail, south of Washington, D.C., on the other side of the Potomac River, is the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. Its motto -- "Doing big things with small boats."

The program targets disadvantaged young people -- many of whom have dropped out of school, been involved in gangs and had run-ins with the law. Joe Youcha, executive director, says, "Most of these kids have looked at what they have considered their options and had a very narrow horizon and they have made bad decisions. We are trying to open up that horizon and telling them -- 'You, go here and if you go here, you do well.'"

Here, "doing well" means still being employed and/or in school one year after graduating -- something which around 70 percent achieve. Central to the approach is the apprentice status of participants, who are paid above minimum wage and expected to play by the rules.

Youcha explains, "We give them the basics that are universal to any trade -- how do you use a ruler, how do you plan a project, how do you learn on the job and be productive? We teach them those things and most importantly: how do you show up every day on time, ready to learn, prepared?"

Experience has shown that building these old fashioned wooden boats is a great way to impart a variety of valuable skills quickly. And it is not just about carpentry.

There is classroom work too, including math, so apprentices can calculate measurements with the necessary precision.

Program graduate Oscar Melgar has learned the value of accuracy and hopes to use that in a job as a surveyor. "I like working with boats. You work with different angles, different shapes and you've got to use your brain a lot."

The workshop is also a place for apprentices to interact with people they might not normally meet -- the volunteers. Many of those who donate their time are retired professionals, with backgrounds very different from those they help.

That is why Joe Youcha describes the workshop as a "mixing pot." "I would say the most important things we do are the socialization skills -- to show these kids that they have a place in our community and that there's a way for them to get to that place," he said.

That lesson and the value of all the collective life experience available here are not lost on 19-year old Oscar Melgar. "I learned that when you go to a jobsite, you should stay around the person who's been around the longest. You learn the most from him," Melgar said.

While the basic design of this launch is 19th century, the lessons learned during its construction are proving very relevant today.

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