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Program Teaches Troubled Teens To Build Boats

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - A program that encourages troubled teens to find the best in themselves has an opportunity to reach even more people. The non-profit Urban Boatbuilders offers apprenticeships to 16- to 19-years-olds for six months.

During that time they teach them wooden boat building as a way to develop academic, life and work skills. And you can have a hand in their success.

"You get to build things with your hands, which I really enjoy doing," apprentice Mathias Epp said.

The 5,000 square foot workshop offers at-risk teens a place to grow and learn, and to build for the future.

"Boat building is really an amazing vehicle for teaching skills and values," executive director Marc Hosmer said.

It's a safe place where success is found around every corner, where relationships are strengthened and encouraged. The teens who earn an apprenticeship with Urban Boatbuilders were recommended or referred to the program.

"We recruit pretty heavily from corrections, and we're targeting, in general, people who have employment barriers," master boating instructor Phil Winger said.

The opportunity typically comes at a crossroad. The program gives teens a chance to change their course in life.

"Their futures are uncertain at times," Hosmer said. "For the youth who are re-entering society from juvenile corrections, they have a really high chance of going back and committing another crime, and our program helps them find different ways to channel their energy."

Epp found his way into the program through his probation officer.

"I just did some bad things," Epp said.

The 17-year-old with autism found he thrived in this environment. He said it changed him from the inside out, going from shy to confident.

"I'm a bit more responsible, taking responsibility for certain things, and I persevere more often now, instead of just giving up," Epp said.

Often times, the teens in the paid employment training program lack positive relationships with adults.

How they interact at work is one way Winger measures success.

"I'll hear stories about what's going on with them at home and in their school situation," Winger said. "If I know they feel open enough to talk about that with me and with the other instructors, we're doing something right."

Lily Vraa admits she slacked off in school. But she learned what she does within the four walls apply to all aspects of her life.

"You have to go back and smooth that out, and it relates to the different things that you just have to keep re-doing until you're satisfied," Vraa said.

And what better way to feel a sense of accomplishment than by allowing the teens to test their boats once complete?

"It feels like you actually made something yourself that you could actually supply to someone else to make their life better," Epp said.

"It serves as a metaphor for where they are in life," Winger said. "When you're 17, 18 you can go anywhere, and in a boat from Minneapolis, St. Paul you can go anywhere in the world."

Urban Boatbuilders is one of nine finalists for the Building Community Award by The Opus Group. The non-profit with the most votes will be rewarded with a $62,000 grant. Hosmer calls that a game-changer, and it would help keep the program going and growing.

Urban Boatbuilders is the only Minnesota organization up for the grant. People can vote here through Friday.

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