ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA - The art of building small wooden boats is being used to help young, at-risk adults turn their lives around. They are serving as apprentices in a boat building program, sponsored by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation in Virginia, to give them the skills, confidence and discipline to change their lives for the better. 

The apprentices learn their craft at the foundation’s seaport center, a floating timber chalet, on the banks of the Potomac River in historic Alexandria, Virginia, once a thriving seaport town in colonial America.

The year-round program teaches small groups of apprentices from 18-22 years old how to build small wooden sailboats and canoes. 

Chris Adkins is a friendly 19-year-old from Florida with brown, curly hair. As he saws, hammers and drills, he learns, piece by piece, what it takes to build boats that are beautiful and practical.

"It's been fun to learn how to use these tools. I've definitely learned to measure twice and cut once,” he said.

At the helm of the program is Jimmy Gottfried who had also been an apprentice.

"Many of the apprentices in our program have faced many challenges in their lives, such as lack of family support, dropping out of school, having run-ins with the law,” he said. “And they're looking for a way to gain back the confidence they need to go back out into the workforce." 

The year-long program pays a small stipend. The apprentices are guided by volunteer mentors like Fred Geiger, who teach them how to build the boats, as well as guide them in their personal lives. 

"As their self-confidence gets better, then you can address other things, like are you paying your bills? Do you have a bank account? Are you eating right? And what is your living situation?"

A number of the apprentices have not finished high school, and the foundation works to help them pass their GED — a high school equivalency. Those who do not have adequate math skills receive tutoring from a volunteer.

Adkins said he was a good student, but had to drop out of high school to work, due to his family situation.

"My mom died when I was 8-years-old by taking her own life, and it is something I’ve struggled with to find a way to cope with it. And I haven't had the support from my father who has substance abuse issues,” he explained. “One reason that I came to the program was because they want to help you. I'm not used to someone wanting to help me, or enthusiastic about it, or believing in me."

Apprentice program manager Jay Helinski, who completed the program about a year ago, is a role model for the group.

"They know that I'm living proof of what hard work and dedication, and just the willpower to succeed gets you to,” he remarked.

Now more than halfway through his apprenticeship, Adkins said he feels better about himself. He has passed his high school equivalency and hopes to go to college one day.

“Right now, I have two part-time jobs, one working in a pizza place,” he said. “But the apprentice program is giving me the opportunity to really dig deeper into myself and find what I want to do."

When the wooden boats are finished, they are sold at a raffle. Adkins said he will be sad to see them go, but knows like life, they are meant to sail onward.

"There is so much creativity that goes into making them. They're beautiful on the water. I'm glad they're going to a good home," he said and smiled.