By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
Now in their 20th year, the non-profit Urban Boat Builders (UBB) held a grand opening for their new boat works and office space last month. More than 250 people packed the afternoon celebration which featured speakers, good eats and a chance to look at canoes, kayaks and prams built by program apprentices.
The new space at 2288 University Ave. W. is four times the size of the old location at Pascal and University. “We looked at dozens of properties before choosing this one,” said executive director Marc Hosmer. A generous donor contributed $25,000 to get the build-out started, and UBB was able to raise another $25,000 thru Indiegogo (an on-line, global fundraising site). Kraus-Anderson Construction donated countless hours of labor and materials at reduced rates, resulting in a wonderful work-space complete with work benches, wood floors and roomy offices.
For two decades, UBB has remained true to their vision of engaging youth in hands-on learning, while building positive relationships with caring adults. Their apprentice program currently accepts 18 young people (16-19 years old) into six month apprenticeships.
UBB is a well-established intervention program, with most apprentices referred from Totem Town (Ramsey County’s juvenile detention facility), social workers or probation officers. UBB receives more applications than the 36 openings it has each year.
“The two key elements in the selection process,” according to Hosmer, are “who will benefit the most and who seems the most committed.”
To be considered, applicants submit an online application and come to UBB for an unpaid, two-week trial period. If accepted into the program, they receive a stipend in exchange for their nine hours of work per week.
During the first two months, apprentices learn to work with hand tools and develop their wood working skills. Each apprentice completes an individual project, either a paddle or a tool box, before moving on to build a boat with staff, volunteers and fellow apprentices.
The apprentice program is made up of youth from a variety of backgrounds; nearly all of them have had difficulties growing up.
Maila, 20 years old, is one of many successful graduates of the apprentice program. She apprenticed in 2010, after dropping out of high school and entering a treatment program. She went on to attend Augsburg College where she pursued her interest in engineering, and has since returned to UBB as a permanent, part-time instructor.
UBB makes several different kinds of boats, but their signature model is a 17’, 40 lb. skin-on frame canoe. “These boats are top quality,” said Hosmer. “Our instructors have very high standards for construction.”
The canoes are covered with industrial-strength nylon, which is easier and healthier to work with than a fiberglass coating. UBB sells the boats they build, with all proceeds going back into the organization. Their website lists the boats for sale and their prices. They’ll also gladly customize one for you, with the option to sign on as a volunteer to help build your own boat.
In addition to the apprentice program, UBB engages in 12-15 school partnerships annually. These partnerships with local middle schools, high schools, and youth-serving agencies deliver academically enhanced boat-building instruction with emphasis on developing science, technology, engineering and math skills. Classes are typically small, with 6-8 participants.
Whether a school partnership or an apprentice group, each person involved in building a boat has the chance to participate in a launch once their boat is finished. All members of the past year’s apprentice program are invited to travel to the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area for a five-day trip each August, offering many a first-time experience traveling by water in the wilderness.
UBB is firmly anchored in the community, offering opportunities for growth not only for program participants but also for volunteers. Wednesday night is Open Shop Night from 6:30-9:30pm, when adults prepare lumber for the week ahead or work on shop improvements. Anyone is welcome to join.
A limited number of volunteer instructor positions are available from 2-6pm, Monday-Friday. This commitment involves working alongside program instructors and apprentices, and wood-working experience is required. Visit their website at www.urbanboatbuilders.org for more information.
The skills developed at UBB, such as working with spoke shaves, block planes and hand saws, may not turn up on many job descriptions—but to youth adrift they are invaluable.
The pride of craftsmanship and the satisfaction of working on a long-term project as part of a team will translate to anything these young boat builders undertake in the years to come.