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November 15, 2016

For Philly students, building boats provides a sturdy rudder – for life

Nonprofit Wooden Boat Factory wins GSK Impact Award

Nonprofits Awards
Carroll - Philadelphia Wooden Boating Factory. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Ariana Santiago,15, uses a hand plane on wooden planks, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016 at the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory.

The handiwork begins around 4 p.m. at the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, where dozens of students arrive after finishing their day at school.

They will spend the next two-plus hours hammering, sanding and drilling away.

The students are constructing wooden ships to be used as part of the nonprofit's RiverGuides program. But they also are building commitment, competency and confidence.

"Throughout the process of building a boat or rowing a boat, our young people are internalizing a sense of 'Yes, I can,'" Clinical Director Emma Bergman said. "That transfers to whatever they try to do in their lives."

Founded in 1996, the Wooden Boat Factory provides an afterschool program to some 80 city students, ages 13 to 18. Students construct wooden sailboats and rowboats that are used by their peers to operate an environmental education program focused on the local watershed.

Students learn a variety of craftwork skills while boosting their STEM education. But they also complete a social and emotional learning curriculum designed to enhance their resilience to life's varied challenges. And they benefit from the presence of stable, supportive and well-boundaried adults.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Heaven Bethea, 15, drills holes in the keel of a boat, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, at the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory.

GSK honored the Wooden Boat Factory Monday with one of its IMPACT Awards, given to 10 regional nonprofits for "exceptional achievements in contributing to a healthier Philadelphia." The awards brought each nonprofit $40,000.

“If you think about a day when you felt healthy, it’s probably not a day that you went to the doctor," said Becki Lynch, manager of GSK U.S. Community Partnerships. "It’s a day that you had a home-cooked meal, or a great day at work, a bit of exercise, or spent time with family and friends. These are the things that make a healthy community and that our GSK IMPACT Award winners are focused on every day.”

As Wooden Boat Factory Executive Director Brett Hart and Berman accepted the award at the Navy Yard, students continued their work at the nonprofit's Frankford facility.

A brief mindfulness activity marked the beginning of the afternoon before students like Devine Pittman began putting their hands to work.

"There will never be a dull moment in here," Pittman, 18, said. "We're always doing something."

As Pittman spoke, students gathered around the frameworks of two wooden boats sitting in the middle of the workshop. They performed a variety of tasks, each a small step in the arduous process of constructing a boat.

Overhead, completed boats hang as a reminder of prior success and an inspiration to students building a boat for the first time.

"It's the rush of knowing you did something," said Pittman, a junior at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School. "I just did this with my bare hands. Then you get to take it onto the water."

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Various types of tools used for boatbuilding are neatly organized throughout the Philadelphia Wooden Boating Factory.

The Wooden Boat Factory adds its completed boats to a growing fleet stored at the Frankford Community Yacht Club, a space donated to the organization by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.

The fleet is used by students in the nonprofit's RiverGuides program, which puts students on the water to complete various restoration projects involving the local watershed. The students also host community programs designed to educate others about the watershed or learn how to row.

The Wooden Boat Factory aims to empower students to rise above the challenges they face elsewhere in life. The majority of its students move on to post-secondary opportunities, Hart said.

"When you're empowered, your commitment heightens and builds," Hart said. "Then you start to build your competency. As your competency grows, your confidence follows right behind. That's really what a lot of the program is about. It's also the chance for a kid to be a kid again."

For Damien Melendez, 18, the Wooden Boat Factory a warm, inviting atmosphere where he has developed new friends, like Pittman. He beamed as he thought back to the kayaking trip the nonprofit offered prior to its summer session last June.

"Beforehand, I was just looking for something to do outside of my house," said Melendez, a senior at Frankford High School. "My friend told me about this. Once I got into it, I could never get out of it."