An Inspiring Challenge

Krista Connor

This Wilmington-based nonprofit helps at-risk young people gain construction and vocation experience

Anyone taking a tour of the Kalmar Nyckel at its Wilmington shipyard off East Seventh Street will certainly be drawn to a spacious, uniquely-shaped structure to the right of the shipyard. The edgy, contemporary building is made entirely of reclaimed materials like salvaged pickle barrels. And the builders? Aspiring local carpenters between the ages of 18 and 21 from at-risk, underserved backgrounds. About 150 students have worked on the building since construction began in 2008.

The building is home to the Challenge Program, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower these young people with the carpentry and vocational skills needed to get jobs in the workforce. Furniture made by the students can be found in such places as Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen and Taverna in downtown Newark, the Trolley Square Brew Ha Ha!, and a handful of other eateries and cafés between Philadelphia and Lewes. They also continually work on low-income housing in New Castle County.

Says Executive Director Andrew McKnight: “I’ve always been interested in this experiential education model, along with building stuff and filling a need.”

The program goes back to 1995, when McKnight piloted it with the same goal that he has now but with a different focus: boats. He originally taught at-risk young adults classes on building small wooden boats. In the process, he developed a relationship with the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation. For a time, students worked on the tall ship, too.

But McKnight soon realized that in order to be effective, he needed to spend more time with each student. So he began incorporating more practical and long-term projects like housing and barn construction, which he says made more sense to the youth. After a number of years, McKnight implemented woodworking, and he eventually salvaged enough timber to build tables, bar tops, stools, paneling, and more for restaurants. That work started in 2007, and has been a major program focus since.

All different levels of skill are welcome—some participants have experience, others have none. In six months of training, students learn woodworking, basic carpentry skills for construction, safe operations of tools, safe jobsite training, and much more.

Pictured is a CP Furniture log table and benches installed at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen on Main Street, Newark. (Photo by Carlos Alejandro)

Pictured is a CP Furniture log table and benches installed at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen on Main Street, Newark. (Photo by Carlos Alejandro)

And while construction training is important, the key to student success is on a more personal level, according to McKnight. “It’s all about case management,” he says. “The construction is really just a tool, a carrot, to being able to teach the kids to stabilize themselves and allow them to become work-ready. We want to find students who want to work and be successful, not just forced here by their P.O. [parole officer]”

Being able to hold a job has very little to do with skill, and everything to do with attendance and dependability, says McKnight. “Skill is a distant fourth place. Do they have a good attitude? Show up on time every day?”

The weekly work schedule is Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with four hours of paid classroom training included.

The eight program employees also assist students with earning high school diplomas and GEDs and offer job placement services.

The Challenge Program is split into two halves. The previously mentioned open-space Construction Training and Education Center—filled with every kind of tool—is used as the classroom and training shop, and is led by three instructors.

A couple of hundred yards away, a subsidiary program called CP Furniture is where students practice the skills they’ve learned in class.

McKnight says the program is largely funded by the state and various big-name sponsors like Bank of America and Barclays, but it now earns close to half of its income through custom contract work.

Within the next year, he wants to start rolling out a line of CP Furniture pieces, rather than working on custom projects. The program will stop taking custom jobs in January or February 2016 so students can focus on the line.

“CP Furniture is going to make more money so the Challenge Program can function,” says McKnight. “That way, we won’t have to depend so much on grants, and can keep good people around—and afford cool tools and machinery. The more resources we have, the cooler the jobs, the cooler the toys, the better caliber employee we’ll have.”

One student, Kyle Hamilton, 21, heard of the program through a friend, and decided to apply during an unsure period in his life when he was unemployed and didn’t know what his next step would be. As O&A was about to go to press, he was finishing up the last few weeks of his six-month apprenticeship and was planning to transition into a carpentry job that program staff helped facilitate.

“With these skills, I can pretty much go to another construction site and be able to move up,” says Hamilton. “I feel like I have the knowledge and confidence to find my way around. And now I’m already on to the next step.”

Currently, participants are custom-building a bar front for Grain, and pieces for Heirloom restaurant in Lewes as well as Metro, a Middletown eatery. Students also are working on a modular house as well as pieces for the corporate offices for health-focused, Philadelphia-based restaurant chain Honeygrow.

One great aspect of the program, says Hamilton, is that the staff’s main concerns are finding something better than what students are currently doing. So if students don’t have opportunities lined up right after they finish the program, “something could be figured out,” says Hamilton.

“I hope more people hear about the Challenge Program, I really do.” It’s an opportunity, but it can indeed be a challenge, he says. “You have to wake up and be here at 8 a.m., but if you’re willing to show up and finish each day and show the extra effort, it’s worth it.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.