Rebuilding Lives

Working on boats helps troubled teens

The Murray Morgan Bridge is a revived city icon in Tacoma. For more than 103 years, it has connected the charming downtown area to the city’s industrial tideflats. But after deteriorating for decades, it was closed in 2007. The state was planning to remove the bridge, but the people of Tacoma wouldn’t give up on it. Instead of watching it crumble, locals rallied to repair it. Today the enormous black steel beams stretch across the Thea Foss Waterway: a banner of something once broken, and now restored.

Near the bridge, the same thing is happening with people who are working toward rebuilding young lives.

Photos by Rachel Coward

Photos by Rachel Coward

On the industrial side of the Murray Morgan Bridge, the nonprofit Tacoma Community Boat Builders is working with at-risk teenage boys in hopes of rerouting their futures toward calmer waters.

Once to twice a week, the boys who have run into trouble — with the law or school or family — work one-on-one with volunteer mentors to build something with purpose. Some are working on toolboxes or pieces of furniture. Others are restoring wooden boats that are either in need of repairs, or simply a coat of resin.

“Sometimes for the first time (the boys are) having an experience of success. Sometimes it’s just restoration of something they maybe had once before that fell apart,” said Executive Director Shannon Shea.

Minors who enter the juvenile court system are vulnerable to committing more crimes later and being locked up as adults. However, there is something that’s been proven to divert a young man from following a dangerous path toward prison: community. Studies have shown that hands-on, safe community activities can alter the trajectory of a teenage boy in trouble, members of the nonprofit point out.

“If you take a pile of material and you make a boat and you get inside the boat and you row or sail away in it, it’s like you can’t have any better realization of your abilities or your impact on the world than that,” said program facilitator Chuck Graydon.

Paul Birkey, who owns Belina Interiors, a local company that outfits marine interiors, founded the organization in 2012. He was working at a boat-building event at Tacoma’s Maritime Festival when he started thinking about the value boat building could have on kids in need.

“Building a boat, it’s like all these problems encapsulated in a small thing, the boat. And every move you make, it involves a decision,” he said. Each decision can be the difference between a boat that floats and one that sinks.

Chairman and founder Paul Birkey

Chairman and founder Paul Birkey

Last summer the boys and their mentors lowered a beat-up dory into the Thea Foss Waterway just outside the shop. When it filled with water, they collectively had to identify its problems, figure out how to fix them, and then execute the repairs.

“The mindset and the intellectual skillset that goes with attacking a problem like the dory that floods to the gunnels the first time it goes into the water is the same mindset that you need for the kid who won’t go to school. Or the kid who maybe has done something horrendous but doesn’t even know why he did it,” said Shea.

Part of what makes Tacoma Community Boat Builders a safe place for these boys is that they aren’t asked what brought them to the organization. Their mentors aren’t therapists. No one is pointing a finger or looking down at them.

The nonprofit’s organizers believe that what the boys need is a place to practice problem solving.

“We don’t ask what they did to get here; it’s kind of like when we’re in the boat shop, it’s free ground. When they’re in the boat shop they have the opportunity to prove themselves on their own merits,” said Birkey.

One boy has a scar on his face from a deliberate cigarette burn — one of the many kids who have suffered abuse. But many of their stories are not as obvious. They wear band T-shirts, have lanky limbs, most of them have yet to sprout facial hair.

“When they’re in the boat shop they have the opportunity to prove themselves on their own merits.”

They are kids — some with troubled pasts. Many come from broken homes; others are homeless. While many of the mentors are much older than the boys and often in completely different stages of life, they find ways to relate. One mentor is a retired Marine with post-traumatic stress. He works with a boy who is struggling with the syndrome. When one boy came to the shop completely obsessed with rapper Kendrick Lamar, his mentor spent hours with earbuds in, listening to the rap songs and looking for ways to connect with his mentee.

Executive Director Shannon A. Shea

Executive Director Shannon A. Shea

Because Tacoma Community Boat Builders is still a fairly young organization, it’s too early to analyze its long-term effects. But so far, the boys keep coming back to build.

“I come back because I enjoy doing what I do, woodworking. It’s something new for me to learn,” said one boy. Another explained that building gives him something better to do than sitting around the house. Another spends hours on the bus just to get to the shop.

“We joke around about being reverse fishermen here,” said Shea. “They get caught, we catch them, and they sort of get passed on to us and we want to find a way to release them.

“But release them whole. You can’t undo the damage they’ve done or the damage that’s been done to them,” she added.

So what can be done? At the shop, each person can make repairs — one measurement, cut, and carving at a time; boys and their mentors, heads down and focusing on building something together.

This summer the boys will attempt to launch their boats under the shadow of the recently restored Murray Morgan Bridge.

In that shadow, they will test the waters in a positive way. Their mentors hope these experiences will impact the course of the kids’ futures. Stats show the odds are stacked against them, but just like the bridge and in true Tacoma fashion, fighting for something with history, potential, and promise is always worth it.

Learn more about Tacoma Community Boat Builders.

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is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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