by Sue Ann Rybak

Boatbuilder Brett Hart, 36, of Mt. Airy, is helping students build a better future through the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory’s (PWBF) “Boat, Build and Sail” program, a free, hands-on, year-round 13-week program for youth ages 14 to 18. Hart knows the challenges of being a kid in Frankford; he grew up just four blocks from the old Globe Dye Works, 4520 Worth St., where PWBF’s workshop is now located.

“We think of ourselves as a community organization that’s geared for kids,” said Hart, executive director of PWBF. “Growing up here, I walked to school everyday. I know where all the pizza places are. I know all the businesses, and I know what the neighborhood was like when I lived here.”

Hart said he was lucky because he had great educational support from his teachers and family. “My best friend Mike didn’t,” Hart said. “He spent 10 years in the state pen. This is why we have to provide better support networks for students. Mike is smarter than me, stronger than me, funnier than me – just a great human being in every way. I had more positive opportunities than Mike did, and the outcomes are 100 percent predictable.”

Hart has worked in youth development programs as an educator and a mentor from Boston to Los Angeles. “When I was teaching in Los Angeles, I had all the same skill sets as an educator, but I could never know what it was like to grow up in East Los Angeles,” Hart said. “I grew up in this neighborhood in Frankford, and this is where I belong. I can remember running around the streets on summer nights. I remember what it was like to get chased by troublemakers all the way home. I will always connect with this neighborhood and what it’s like to be a kid here.”

PWBF was founded by Geoffrey McKonly in 1996 as a way to provide underperforming and economically disadvantaged youth with skills necessary to succeed in life. Initially the program’s focus was on canoe-building, but when Hart took over in 2009 he decided to change the focus to boatbuilding. Hart changed the focus from daytime programs to mentoring-based after-school programming.

“Fifty years ago, a kid who went to school but wasn’t a star student or a troublemaker could have gotten a job at a factory, but that’s not the economy we are in,” said Hart, who has worked with at-risk youth for eight years. “A lot of schools haven’t kept up with the 21st century. Due to the crisis in our public schools, teachers are not able to hold students to high-enough standards.”

Hart said project-based programs like PWBF’s “Boat, Build and Sail” program are successful because they provide real-world learning and engage youth to make decisions that affect outcomes. “Students in PWBF’s after-school program learn how to learn,” Hart said.

Twenty-four students have been working on 13-foot-long sailboats that will be used in PWBF’s “Boat, Build and Sail” program. Last year, students built three 14-foot rowboats that will be used as part of a River Guide program in collaboration with the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Creek Watershed.

“But why boatbuilding?” asked Hart. “The kids we are working with did not spend their lives dreaming of being a wooden boat builder or sailor, but one of the things you get out of boatbuilding is that it’s a simple, authentic process. When you’re building a boat, you get a set of plans from a designer, and that’s it. There are no instructions. You can’t always get a perfect piece of wood, so you have to figure out what tools you have that can make it work.”

“Students are in our program for different reasons,” said Victoria Guidi, program director at PWBF who has a masters in Special Education and who prior to working at PWBF ran a community sailing program in El Salvador. “Boat building teaches students basic math skills such as measurement, fractions and geometry. Youths who may be struggling in school or just looking for a safe and supportive environment can come here to learn skills that will help them not only be successful in school but in life.”

Hart said thanks to a $45,000 initiating grant from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), PWBF and DEP are launching a pilot program called Community Row Riverguides next month.

“On any given Saturday in July of this year, 20 people from the neighborhood may sign up to participate. The youths in the Riverguide program will teach participants lessons about boat safety, sailing, rowing, the water quality of the watershed and issues that affect this watershed.”

Andrew Cintron, 20, of North Philadelphia, used to attend PWBF as a student at El Centro de Estudiantes, a project-based public school in Kensington. He apprenticed two days a week with PWBF. After graduating from high school, he was offered the position of Program Assistant.

His favorite part of the job is mentoring students. “If a student doesn’t get it, I have the opportunity to help them understand, and when they finally get the picture, that’s what I love about this job,” Cintron said. “I never did mentoring before, and it’s been a great experience for me.”

Greg Torres, 16, a student at Frankford High, has been in the program for three years. “The first time I went out on the launch, I was terrified because I had never been on a boat before,” Torres said. “Brett actually taught me how to swim. My favorite part of the program is going out in the boat and sailing in the Delaware River. I like when the wind is pushing you. Your mind is not worrying; it’s awesome.”

Julian Christopher Calafell, 16, is just one of the Frankford High students who participate in the after-school program. He said one of his favorite things is cutting the wood. “I made a heart for my mom on Valentine’s Day. I like it here. It’s fun.” Calafell, who describes himself as a problem child growing up, said he is on the right track now. “I can thank my grandmother for that. She has been my backbone. A friend from school told me about the program, and I said ‘Sure, I’ll come. It’s another challenge.’”

Students in the PWBF will have the skills to navigate the storms in their future, but they are no longer just drifting along idly; they are at the helm steering their future.

For more information about Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, go to www.woodenboatfactory.org or email brett@woodenboatfactory.org.

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