Above: Challenge Program Executive Director Andrew McKnight says learning trade skills is just the beginning for many of his students.
By Scott Pruden
Photos by Jim Coarse
Taking a tour of the buildings that make up the Challenge Program, the vocational training initiative for young adults located along Seventh Street on Wilmington’s Christina River and Brandywine Creek peninsula, is, in a way, a glimpse into the future.
All around are the components of what will become beautiful hand-crafted furniture — solid wood slabs for tabletops, custom-machined legs and fasteners — and everywhere lingers the scent of milled wood and a light coating of sawdust.
Meanwhile, the participants in the program represent those whose chances at success might have originally been slim, but whose work in the wood shop and the Challenge program’s various projects in the community gives them the foundation to be more employable and ultimately self-sufficient.
And just a few hundred yards up the road, the future is even more tangible with the emergence of the Challenge Program’s new wood shop. The massive post-and-beam building will serve as the flagship for the Challenge Program’s enterprise side, CP Furniture, which will offer a range of custom-built furniture for home and commercial applications. Revenue earned from sales of the high-quality furniture will help support the program’s larger mission.
A History of Helping
On this steamy summer day, the Challenge Program’s main building is, at first glance, nearly indistinguishable from its neighbors at the Copeland Maritime Center, home to the tall ship Kalmar Nyckel.
That’s by both design and happenstance, as the Challenge Program emerged from the original Kalmar Nyckel construction project. In 1995, the Kalmar Nyckel hired Andrew McKnight, the Challenge Program’s executive director, away from the Philadelphia Seaport Museum, where he was teaching boat construction to underserved teens. The hope, McKnight says, was that he could replicate that program’s success in Wilmington.
In 1998, the Challenge Program separated from the Kalmar Nyckel and formed its own non-profit organization, continuing to occupy its custom-built wood shop on the site and expanding to an adjacent cinderblock building situated between the Copeland Maritime Center and Fort Christina Park. It was the former home of a yachting furniture company.
The training program as it exists today — serving young adults from 18 to 24 — started in 2000 and has been going ever since. The primary goal, says McKnight, is to create an environment where young people who are out of school but whose prospects are unsteady can both gain the skills that will make them more employable and develop the stability in their personal lives to enable them to get and keep good paying jobs.
A Pivot in Focus
After beginning as a program to build vocational skills for teens ages 13 to 18, it became clear that it was those past high school age who benefited most from what Challenge had to offer, McKnight says. Helping adults rather than middle- and high-school students also allowed for more in-depth training and higher pay for trainees.
“And then it took another three or four years for me to figure out that it’s not the technical skills training, but the case management that is really the most effective aspect of the program,” he says. “The technical skills are what bring [the trainees] in and keep their interest, but what makes them employable is barrier busting: paying off fines, getting a driver’s license, getting a GED, or finding stable housing to be ready to enter the workforce in a real way. You have to take care of some of those basic needs, and most of the population we serve, they don’t have anybody to do that.”
In other words, the Challenge Program focuses less on creating a constant flow of trained craftspeople and more on building the foundational skills related to work that many of us take for granted. The program helps participants feel secure enough in their personal lives to become reliable workers, says McKnight.
For many of the younger graduates, that means moving into full-time work in something outside the building trades. But as they grow into the responsibilities of young adulthood, he said he sees many of them making the transition to higher paying jobs — occasionally in the trades and with union wages.
For those who don’t step into an employment path immediately, McKnight says another of the Challenge Program’s benefits is its longevity. He’s been active in the program since its inception, and one of his instructors is a 25-year veteran. If former trainees need help or support, they know McKnight and his team will still be available to provide it.
Vernon Laws, 21, a participant in the Challenge Program, says he’d been interested in a career in construction or carpentry since he was a child, and that discovering the program after high school has helped him put that dream into action.
“Once I heard about the program, I decided that it was a good opportunity for me,” he says. “The Challenge Program really gave me the experience to do this as a career. They helped me figure out stuff I’d never figured out before.”
As another next step, a select number of Challenge Program graduates are eligible to participate in the pre-apprenticeship program at CP Furniture, the Challenge Program’s social business enterprise. CP’s earnings go back into the Challenge Program coffers to allow the program to be self-supporting.
Currently, the Challenge Program is funded by private industry sponsors such as Capital One, Barclays US, TD Bank as well as public sources such as the Delaware Department of Labor, the Delaware Workforce Development Board and the Delaware Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. McKnight says the success of CP Furniture and the ongoing demand for the products it provides will, once the new woodshop is completed, create a steady stream of income that will help the overall program thrive and flourish.
The new space will also allow the Challenge Program to further expand the ways it can help graduates better their work prospects, says McKnight.
The plan is to have a total of 20 employees on-site, among them seven mechanics mentoring a maximum of seven trainees for a 1-to-1 student/supervisor ratio. That maximizes learning opportunities and enables the shop to fulfill its orders, says McKnight.
That ability to provide products was a major hurdle once the furniture side of the program began to grow after its inception in 2014. By 2018, restaurants and other businesses had been reaching out to add the woodshop’s unique woodworking creations to their own spaces, but the shop struggled to scale up.
Travel around Wilmington and Philadelphia and it’s not hard to see furniture and products the program has produced. The Queen Theater, University of Delaware, Barnes Foundation, Longwood Gardens, the Discovery Center in Philadelphia, CSC Station, Deco, Talula’s Garden, Yards Brewery, Le Cavalier, La Pizzeria Metro, Wilmington Brew Works, Bardea Steak, Chancery Market, Scout Coffee and Sleeping Bird Coffee, among others, have all benefited from the skill and creativity of Challenge Program participants.
Laura Wilburn, executive director of the Urban Bike Project (UBP) in Wilmington, has not only benefited from the program’s craftsmanship both on an organizational and personal basis, but has returned the favor by trading knowledge between her group and Challenge Program trainees.
The UBP’s shop features custom wood paneling from the Challenge Program that would have been prohibitively expensive from anyone else, Wilburn says. “They bring a really cool aesthetic, and all the time since renovating the shop people come in and say, ‘Wow, it’s so cool in here. We had no idea.’ It’s just a bike shop, but it’s a really cool space.”
In addition, a centerpiece of her Wilmington rowhome is a custom-made dining room table she and her husband commissioned from the program.
“We’ve worked with them in lots of different ways over the years and always had a great relationship,” she says. “We did a program where their trainees were able to learn some mechanical skills to work on their own bikes to use for transportation, and a number of our trainees went over there to get training on welding.”
However, as the demand for their products quickly outpaced the program’s ability to provide inventory, it became evident that the relatively small Challenge Program woodshop would need to be replaced.
Fortunately, the site two lots down at 1136 E. 7th St. was available from the City of Wilmington, and using money from a federal Urban Development Action Grant, the Challenge Program bought the lot and brought in Digsau Architects, which had designed the original Challenge Program headquarters — formally known as the Construction Training and Education Center — on the Kalmar Nyckel site.
Jim Ennis, one of the Challenge Program supervisors and the person in charge of construction of the new shop, has high hopes for the new space.
“It’s going to make a big difference because a lot of our guys are coming from troubled backgrounds and are looking for the means to improve themselves,” he says. “The size itself makes a huge difference. The physical size not only allows us to build more stuff, but also to hire more people.”
Those points are the key to the Challenge Program’s future, McKnight says.
“We’re trying to turn into a production furniture shop,” he says. “The idea is once we move, we will be able to take on more and that volume should make us a little more profitable. So that’s kind of the idea behind the move.”
Celebrating a New Space
The new 14,000-square-foot building was originally scheduled to be completed in spring of 2020, but COVID delayed those plans. Now in the home stretch of construction, the Challenge Program will reveal the new building to the public an inaugural celebration called Tastings Under the Timbers at 6:15 p.m. on Dec. 7 (a pre-event reception for VIPs begins at 5:30 p.m.).
Construction of the new building — particularly during pandemic conditions — has been a challenge in itself, says McKnight. But with the experience of working in both a custom and a repurposed building, he and his team brought ample experience to the project.
“After building [the Construction Training and Education Center], we were like, these are the mistakes we’re not going to make again,” he says. “So, we’ve very carefully thought out the layout, what tooling we need, where the dust collector’s going to go. Everything. It’s exciting.”
—Learn more about the Challenge Program at challengeprogram.org and CP Furniture at cpfurniture.org. For tickets or sponsorship information about Tastings Under the Timbers, visit tastingsunderthetimbers.cpfurniture.org.