The most important thing Urban Boatbuilders build is confidence, says Executive Director Marc Hosmer. For the 16- to 19-year-olds in the apprenticeship program, “being able to take a pile of sticks and turn it into a beautiful boat that they can launch into the water is such an amazing confidence booster,” he says.
Now in its 19th year, Urban Boatbuilders works with schools, community organizations and juvenile corrections facilities to help young people learn craftsmanship, as well as other “21st century skills” like teamwork, perseverance and communication — skills they’ll need to be successful in life regardless of the vocational path they take.
UB offers two types of experiences for teens in the St. Paul area — school partnerships and an apprentice program.
School partnerships bring the materials, tools and instructors to the school. During the course of 70 instruction hours, the students build a boat from start to finish.
The (paid) apprentice program is made up of young people from a variety of backgrounds. Often, these kids have had difficulties while growing up, many coming from Boys Totem Town or maybe a treatment program, but anyone is welcome to apply. The boat launch I attended recently at Lake Como Pavillion in St. Paul (see video of the launch below) also included students who had previously been in a school partnership project and one who receives special education services for autism. They all seemed to work well together, making for a diverse, spirited team.
Urban Boatbuilders sells the boats they build, and all the profits go back into the organization. Their website lists boats for sale and prices. They’ll also gladly custom-build one for you — and if you’d like, you can sign on as a volunteer on your own boat construction.
Their signature boat is a 17-foot, 40-pound, ballistic nylon skin-on-frame canoe. “These boats are incredibly high quality,” says Hosmer. “Our instructors have really high standards for construction. And we sell our boats at a fraction of what they are truly worth.”
Even though Hosmer has only been part of Urban Boatbuilders for a couple of years, he’s quickly learned about the effect the organization has had on 19 years of apprentices. “Just about every month someone stops in here — usually looking for Phil Winger, one of our instructors — and they want to share with us how much of an impact this program had on their lives.”
Maila Lee, 20, is one who came back to tell the instructors her success story. She was a 2010 apprentice after dropping out of high school and going through a treatment program. She showed up at the shop one day last summer and wanted to share with everyone that she had been accepted to Augsburg College. They hired her as an intern for this summer. She has provided leadership and inspiration for the current crop of apprentices.
Urban Boatbuilders will be expanding their program in the next year and hire more apprentices, up from the current 12 to 18. This will require a larger space than they have now, so donations are being solicited to help pay for a new work space.
This week, the apprentices have embarked on the capstone event of their tenure — a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. They’re paddling canoes they built with their own hands.
“The trip is incredible,” says Hosmer. “A lot of our kids don’t even understand what it means to be out of cell phone range. Going to this remote wilderness pushes them and challenges them to accomplish something really meaningful.”
From the looks of it, they’ve already done that before they even put the canoes in the water.