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Building Community

by Norris Comer

Boat BuildingBuilding Vessels and Enriching lives at Tacoma Community Boat Builders

The outlook for a kid on the wrong side of the law can often be bleak, and the tragedy is that many disadvantaged or adjudicated youth just need mentorship, a safe place, and a way forward with their lives. Fortunately, Tacoma Community Boat Builders (TCBB), with their motto “Building Strong Boats, Sailing Rough Waters,” is here for them. These at-risk youths are taught valuable trade skills to build boats that they ultimately take onto the water and learn to operate.

“This is a program of youth development and enrichment,” says Chuck Graydon, Program Facilitator of TCBB. “The vehicle with which we do that is a mentorship program where we have adult craftsmen who have been in the industry or business of building boats or manufacturing.” The volunteer mentors offer one-on-one attention to every kid involved in the program at the fully equipped woodshop located on the Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma. “On a typical day we’ll have anywhere between eight and 12 kids, and we usually have enough mentors to cover them,” says Graydon. “The one-to-one ratio is critical to our success. I’ve taught in our state vocational system and had 25-30 students before. It’s just not an effective form of conveying information.”

The kids work on a variety of their own projects in addition to building boats, including building their own toolboxes and birdhouses. Of course, the highlight of the program for many is taking their boat projects onto the water where they learn to sail and row, and generally have a great time.

“In my mind, the program serves a dual purpose. The primary one is to give the kids an environment where they can experience success and attain a level of technical literacy they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” says Graydon. TCBB is the perfect first step for someone with no craftsman skills who could enter the trades profession someday. “It’s like an incubator program for a higher-level skills training program. We’re getting them to a point where they would be acceptable for a full-fledge training program where they could make a career in the maritime or manufacturing trades.”

Tacoma Community Boat BuildingThe second purpose is to provide the participants and alums of the program a safe place. Although the courts only mandate a ten-week sentence for the youths in the program, many stay on for a year or more as volunteers helping around the shop because it’s simply a safe, enjoyable space. Others go onto technical school where they truly become self-sufficient, law-abiding adults. A notable alum of the program, is one such example. He is currently enrolled at Bates Technical College as a diesel mechanic, where he is completing his last two years of high school credits plus getting a two-year AA degree. This is all very impressive, especially considering the growing TCBB is only in its third year of operation. TCBB is entirely funded by private donations, with some notable large organizations like the Ben B. Cheney Foundation, Pierce County, and KeyBank pitching in.

“We’re going to run a pilot program this next month for higher risk kids from the courts. Right now we have mostly diversion cases, where they haven’t broken the law, but they’ve drawn attention from the law,” says Graydon. “Now we’re going to start getting high-risk kids who’ve actually seen some hardcore action in jail or gangs. We’ll see how it goes.”

Graydon gives us a tour of the shop where we are greeted with warm lights and the sweet smell of cut lumber. Wood boats in various states of completion sit on stands or rest against the wall. Promise, the first boat made by the organization, is displayed prominently. Strong boats for rough seas, indeed.

If you’re curious and want more info, check out tacomaboatbuilders.org. The at-risk youth of Pierce County and the inspiring people of the TCBB can use all the help they can get.

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