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The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory’s new home in Frankford is relatively unassuming, save for the green barn doors on the Kinsey Street side. Passing by, you might think it’s simply part of the large Globe Dye Works building — if not for the sailboat bows that often peek out the front.
The educational facility mentors local middle and high school students from Port Richmond, Kensington and Frankford, teaching boat-building, sailmaking, sailing and environmental studies. The idea is to let students build relationships in a safe environment while also learning a new skill. All of this happens in the organization’s brand new headquarters, which it moved into just over seven months ago.
The new space is barely a block away from the old location, but the new shop and offices are a step up in size, allowing the PWBF to welcome even more students into its program, and provide it with room to grow.
Founded in 1996 by boat builder and furniture maker Geoff McKonly, the Factory initially ran on a school-based vocational-technology model, but switched in 2010 to an extracurricular model. This change gave the kids a place to go after classes let out, and, perhaps relatedly, greatly increased the number of students who could participate. It also allowed for an increase in the range and duration of programs.
During a visit to the new shop, student Omar Velez, 17, gave me a mini-lesson in planing, which is the process of shaving down a piece of wood until it is flat.
“You see this white space here,” he said, pointing to some light coming through a gap between a measuring tool and the plank he was shaping. “I have to plane it down and make it even.”
Amelia Hay, a boat-building program director and newcomer to PWBF who was monitoring Omar’s progress, added with a smile: “I just started here, so really, he’s teaching me.”
PBWF executive director Brett Hart has been involved in experiential education through the maritime arts in Philadelphia for 15 years, and has held his current position since 2010.
“When I saw how profound this intervention was, when I saw what the people before me were able to accomplish in this context, the switch flipped for me,” he said. “It no longer became about being the best boat builder, it became about the connection between the youth I was working with and myself, and between me and my peers in this field. My conversations evolved from being maritime-centered to being ‘what could we have done better today with that young person?’”
In the shop where the building takes place, everyone has a different role. But the man in charge is Boat Build and Sail Director Jesus Castro. He holds a degree in psychology, and has been building boats since 2009. While overseeing the boat-building is something he greatly enjoys, he’s far more proud of — and attuned to — the work he does with the kids, referring to his job as the “perfect blend of community activism and carpentry.”
“I like to provide a safe space for [the students] to make interesting and educational mistakes.” The Factory could be considered a jumping-off point for going into the trades, but mostly, Jesus said, the kids are “attracted to the weirdness of boat building. Really, I’m here to help them find their own weirdness.”
Boat building is a difficult process, and comes with many challenges. But what it doesn’t come with, Jesus said, is baggage. “It is a safe activity for the students to get involved with, because it doesn’t hold any negative memories for them. [Almost] nobody has an abusive uncle who was a boat builder.”
Another component to the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory is attention to the students’ social and emotional development. That’s where Emma Bergman, the factory’s clinical director, director of operations and licensed social worker, plies her trade.
“This week’s topic is perseverance and grit,” she says.
At the PWBF’s sailing-specific facility on the Delaware River, a group of high school-aged students had just finished up their morning sail and were enjoying lunch.
Emma had brought with her a game she created for the topic of the week, called “Gritty Celebrities.” Each student took an index card with the name of a famous person who had to overcome adversity in his or her life — personalities ranged from Helen Keller to Batman, Magic Johnson to Malala Yousafzai. The teens stuck them to their foreheads, and Emma relayed to them the objective of the game.
“You’re trying to figure out who you are.”
The kids shouted, or scrunched their faces in thought, trying to attach the answers to the questions they asked of their fellow students to the person taped to their forehead. Some students weren’t familiar with the celebs assigned to them, so it quickly became a group activity, with peers chiming in to help steer each other.
“The groups are tight,” Emma says. “There’s a certain community and culture at the Factory. It comes in the form of strong, consistent relationships, but also having fun and engaging with each other.”
When the game was finished, the kids sat and discussed each of the people in the game, including the adversity that they faced and commonalities they shared. Afterwards, there wasn’t much time left, but a few students convinced their instructor to let them go out on the water one more time.
Back at the shop, a crucial piece of the building process was taking place. Students were laying down a freshly shaped plank onto the hull of a vessel, placing it along the unfinished skeletal ribs of what would become a boat.
“This is a really important part,” Emma said as the students lay down caulk. Other teens tightened clamps as another group guided the board into place. Palpable energy filled the air. It was a collaborative effort, and it was going to work.