'I'd rather be doing this than sitting in a cubicle all day'

PORTLAND, Ore. - On the surface, this is a boat building class - you've got the wood, the tools and the eager students willing to learn.

But that's simply a cover for what is really going on in the back of ADX, a collaborative work space in Southeast Portland where students at the Wind & Oar Boat School are not just building a boat, they are building their future. It's a future that perhaps seemed unattainable at one point, but is now just within reach thanks to a unique workforce development program.

Lead instructor Peter Crim founded the school a few years ago and partners with Worksystems, Inc. They work with local social service agencies to reach out to young men and women who could benefit from learning a set of skills. Crim figures there's no better way to do that than by building a boat from scratch.

For 22-year-old Prairie Ducheneaux, the program is a stepping stone to a dream. Right now she is enrolled in Mount Hood Community College's Project YESS (Youth Employability Support Services) and is working towards her GED.

Although she's taken the slow road for her education, she has big goals. Ducheneaux knows she wants to build things and is planning to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering.

"I'm trying to find a career where I can keep on advancing instead of being stuck at one point," she said.

The program at Mount Hood Community College helped connect Ducheneaux to the Wind & Oar Boat School. The idea of learning how to build a boat called her name once she heard about it.

Prairie Ducheneaux. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

"My dad always talked about how he wanted a sailboat one day," she said. "And I was looking around and there was this opportunity where you could build a sailboat. And I was like 'wow, I could learn how to build a sailboat for my dad.' Nobody gets that opportunity. This is like one of those rare things that happen."

What Ducheneaux quickly figured out is the class is more than just about building a boat. It's really a way to teach students valuable problem solving skills, show them how to work as a team and develop math skills.

Math was Ducheneaux's stumbling block and she's been able to make significant progress while taking this class. She was also unsure of herself at first, but has now gained a confidence that her instructors have noticed.

"It was like two or two and a half weeks ago where she was like 'I want you to tell me step by step and give me the instructions one at a time, otherwise it's too overwhelming," said Hannah Lynch, who teaches alongside Crim. "And I was like 'OK, if that's what you need, that's what we'll do. Now, I can just kind of tell her what I need to do at the end, and then a few specifics, and she can fill in those blanks."

For 17-year-old Owen Mitchell, who was referred to the program from the NAYA Family Center, the hands-on approach to learning is better than sitting at a desk in a classroom.

"Sitting down - you get distracted too easy," he said. "This is hands on and you're active and you don't get distracted."

Mitchell said he's been excited to learn how to use the tools and loves the accomplishment he feels about the work that he and his team are doing. He's also learning problem solving skills and sees the practical side of this, as well.

"Say when I'm older and I have something break down in my house. I'll have at least somewhat of the knowledge to know how to fix it instead of just calling somebody else or not knowing what to do," he said.

Jeremy Whiz. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

Jeremy Isaac Whiz, 19, just got his high school diploma. He wants to go to Portland Community College next year and hopefully land a job at a skateboard shop. Whiz also values the non-traditional classroom.

"Until you have your hands on a piece of wood and you're doing what I'm doing - it's just the experience," he said. "I'd rather be doing this than sitting in a cubicle all day. I'd rather not be a zombie, thank you."

For instructors Peter Crim and Hannah Lynch, seeing these young men and women doing so well is their reward.

"All of them came in willing to learn, really willing to learn," said Lynch. "There was never a point where I would ask them to do something and they were like 'no, I'm not doing that.' Even when it's been really crappy work. They've had pretty good attitudes about it."

Of course, the reality is that boat building is not in high demand in the job market. But that's not the point.

"They're not going to become boat builders, but they are going to know how to use tools and hopefully have a stronger foundation for math," Crim said. "From our perspective, it's reinforcing math skills and teaching them some hands-on skills."

"We are empowering them to use tools, use their brains, trust their eyes and hands and everything," said Lynch. "It's challenging work (teaching this class), but it's totally awesome. I'm pretty proud of them."