WILMINGTON – In the hot summer of 1995 Baton Rouge, a group of boys sanded, sawed and hammered slabs of wood to construct go-karts. Once finished, the boys took their creations to the top of a grassy hill, strapped on helmets and launched full speed down the slope.
A lawyer with a passion for woodworking invited the teens to participate in the new summer camp program he developed. He believed the craft could teach boys positive values.
TV reporters covered the race, and Louisiana’s largest newspaper, The Advocate, ran a story the next day with photographs of the boys maneuvering carts downhill. Chasing the boys in the background was the lawyer-turned-woodworking instructor.
“I learned I love doing this,” the lawyer told the journalist that day. “And I’m going to keep doing this.”
26 years later, Jimmy Pierce hangs a print of that newspaper over his desk in his Castle Street woodworking shop. He’s no longer a lawyer. Instead, he teaches woodworking to at-risk youth at his nonprofit Kids Making It. Recently, the organization completed a 4,500-square-foot expansion to house a new skilled trades program. The classes will introduce teens to electrical, plumbing, HVAC and construction careers.
The name “Kids Making It” has double meaning. The day of the wooden cart race, Pierce’s law secretary insisted on creating certificates for the winners. On a whim, she asked what the camp was called. Pierce didn’t know.
“Well, how about Kids Making It?” she suggested.
“That’s perfect,” he said.
The name stuck.
Only, today it means more than kids hammering together two-by-fours and wheels to make a sweet ride. The organization is setting the kids up to “make it” in life.
The vast majority of students who come to the shop are from low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. Three quarters have been a victim of a crime themselves. Most come from single- or no-parent households and/or have a mental health diagnosis.
In the safety of the woodworking shop, though, they’re just kids.
Concrete talks and late-night drives
Pierce links the birth of Kids Making It to a single moment 32 years ago. As he was arriving home from the law office that day, his wife met him on the front porch and asked him to sit.
Sitting in his suit on the concrete, his wife told him they were going to have a baby. The news led Pierce to reorient his whole world.
“It’s like a tsunami coming at you, but it’s all wonderful. It’s the most wonderful experience in the world,” Pierce said. “And it’s hard to describe . . . It just really rocked my world and made me start thinking about life, and how I was going to spend my time.”
He kept asking himself, “Do I want to practice law for the rest of my life?” During a late night drive to North Carolina to visit his parents, as his newborn slept in the back seat, his mind wandered to the idea of sharing with children his passion for woodworking – a hobby he could get lost in and hoped they would, too.
“It’s all about that experience that you get when you’re so absorbed in something that somehow it’s making connections almost with your soul,” Pierce said. “You lose track of time, and you’re not thinking, your mind’s not wandering, you’re just really into it. That was just an amazing thing. And so I really thought, ‘Boy, you know, if kids could enjoy that, wouldn’t that be cool?’”
In 1994 Pierce would leave his law practice at noon on Fridays to teach a teenager woodworking in his backyard shop. The following summer, a friend helped Pierce organize the summer camp with kids from low-income parts of Baton Rouge, which led to the go-kart race.
“They put the kids on TV, and it was like, all of a sudden people cared about them. And they were so excited,” Pierce said.
In 1996 Pierce transferred his practice to his partner and moved to North Carolina. With a few years of saved income, he pursued his “pipe dream” of Kids Making It.
He volunteered with the Wilmington Housing Authority’s Jervay community, and a friend from the authority helped Pierce seek a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission to run Kids Making It full time.
It was rejected.
The next year the commission came back, told Pierce there were some leftover funds and asked if he could run the program for $35,000.
“I said, ‘Sign me up,’” Pierce said. “They could have probably said $35. I’d say yes.”
Connecting work to income
After continuing to work with youth in public housing and domestic violence shelters, Kids Making It opened its first storefront on Water Street in 2003, where its prodigy woodworkers could make pens and ornaments, and sell their wares to tourists on the riverfront.
Today the nonprofit is located in a larger space on Castle Street, operating free introductory classes and afterschool sessions, apprenticeships, summer jobs and, now, hands-on job training in its new building.
In the gift shop, merchandise is tagged with the name of each teen who hand crafted the item: A cutting board by Phoenix. A toy car by Takarri. A bird house by Montez.
The staff writes checks to students monthly for their sales. Always, around 50 cents to a couple of dollars is deducted for the cost of the wood – “not because we want the money,” Pierce clarifies, “but we want them to know that everything has a cost.”
“Most of our programs are all about helping kids also connect work to income,” Pierce said.
Kids as young as 7 may tour the shop and learn the first principles of woodworking in the introductory course. They’re told once they turn 13, they can join the teenagers and come build everyday.
A kid’s first day is typically spent constructing a wall shelf – an ideal project to introduce a variety of tools, like the miter saw, the table saw, the bandsaw and skill like sanding, drilling and joinery techniques.
After that, kids take on projects that are focused on specific techniques. They are able to display their products in the shop right away if they choose or take them home.
Sometimes students come in to express creativity; other times they’re ready to earn a check. Instructors will recommend they reproduce some of the best sellers, like a nautical-themed Tic-tac-toe board. Around 60 have been ordered so far.
In one session, a kid can churn out about five boards. That’s a $75 profit in an hour and a half.
“We get little things like that that’ll just take off,” said Joseph Williams, a social worker and instructor at Kids Making It.
The holidays are a lively time for sales, and students will use the extra money for gifts for friends and family. Last season the children sold wooden Charlie Brown Christmas trees. One child raked in more than $1,100 for three weeks of selling the Peanuts-themed decor.
“When they get their first check – the smile on their face. They’re just like, ‘ah,’” Williams said. “A 13-, 14-year old, there’s nowhere they could go and make the money that they make here.”
Williams clarifies Kids Making It isn’t just about kids turning profit. At his previous job at the Department of Social Services, he said, it could take months to break through with a child.
“Sometimes you have success, but a lot of times not,” Williams said. “Here, you can just see a kid within a day just open up and start relaxing.”
He said sometimes kids will come in just to talk, or they’re not in the mood to build, and that’s fine with the instructors.
“Our whole thing is not to turn them into expert woodworkers,” Pierce said, “but to give them a safe place to be and a way to learn to build self esteem, learn to do something other kids don’t know how to do, and make money in the process.”
The beauty of Kids Making It, Pierce said, is kids aren’t required to show up at the afterschool program. Attendance isn’t mandatory. There are no tests. There is no homework. Still, students want to come and work for themselves.
“I’ve had kids come in before and say, ‘I want to get a job like my friend here.’ I remember one time a kid got a cell phone call and said, ‘I can’t talk now, I’m at my job,’” Pierce laughs. “That’s cool.”
Aging out of the program
Kids Making It has tracked a zero dropout rate among its students for years now.
For many, though, college still isn’t an option once they obtain their diploma.
That’s why the organization started hiring apprentices in 2011 to do custom work for the public. After the recession some of the teens who were aging out of Kids Making It were struggling to find jobs – “kids who had done the right thing, stayed in school, stayed out of trouble,” Pierce said.
Pierce figured, with the amount of people who had asked about buying custom furniture, he could give some older students paid positions.
“It’s a way for them to have a part-time job, get the paycheck, have a good reference for the workplace, and then we help them move into [working] full time,” Pierce said.
Plenty of requests for work come into Kids Making It. They produce awards for ceremonies and large quantities of popular products, such as charcuterie plates or cutting boards, that can be engraved with company names and gifted to employees. They helped reclaim wood from the old Gaylord building that underwent renovations this past year.
Kids Making It also connects students with local employers for paid gigs when school is out. The program started in 2015 when the city asked the nonprofit to run a summer jobs program. Pierce hired teens living in public housing to build raised garden beds in their neighborhoods.
After that summer, the nonprofit Voyage (formerly Blue Ribbon Commission) and Kids Making It teamed up to continue the program. Pierce said they thought they’d “be lucky to get 10 kids in jobs” last summer because of Covid-19. Sixty were employed.
In three years, Kids Making It raised $500,000 through a capital campaign to make room for a skilled trades program. The end result is a two-story, golden Cypress, timber frame building on the neighboring lot.
Five students are already learning the basics in the new building. Once the pandemic has eased and it’s safe to work side-by-side again, Pierce wants to set up hands-on stations and bring in contractors to teach electrical, plumbing, HVAC, construction, carpentry and masonry.
“Then we can get them jobs with contractors for this incredible job market for people who can do that kind of stuff,” Pierce said.
After a record year of unemployment caused by the pandemic, the skilled trades is one of the most stable industries in the U.S. Half of construction workers earn more than $49,030, according to the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics. The top 25% take home at least $68,690.
The goal of the program is to end generational cycles of poverty and incarceration by introducing a range of career paths to young adults who may have otherwise felt their only options were a low-paying job or a life of fast money on the streets. But the hope is the kids would also enjoy their careers.
“When they’ve been with us for several years, they’re used to using their hands, building stuff,” Pierce said. “They like doing that.”
The program will allow the kids to try out various trades in order to pick what they enjoy doing most, and how they want to spend their time.
That’s how they’ll make it.
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