Wood Works

BY Sandra Chambers

Behind the faade of the Jacobi Warehouse a nondescript building on Wilmingtons Water Street one mans dream comes true as teens build birdhouses planters hand-turned bowls even ballpoint pens along with other projects in the woodworking shop and art room.

Kids Making It the afterschool and weekend program that helps keep at-risk youth off the streets and encourages them to stay in school and graduate by providing vocational training and mentoring in a family-like atmosphere also helps them transition successfully into college or the workplace.

KMI which officially began in 1999 morphed from a part-time experiment to an award-winning nonprofit organization serving more than 1 500 kids in twelve years so far. Founder and executive director Jimmy Pierce describes the experience of working with these kids as more than rewarding.

“Its the answer to a question I asked myself 20-some years ago when I was making more and more money as a lawyer but becoming less happy doing it ” Pierce explains. “The question: What would you be doing if you could do anything? My answer: woodworking.”

Seeding the Vision

Pierce grew up in Swansboro North Carolina where his grandfather was a carpenter and his father built houses.

“I was always around stuff getting built ” Pierce says. “In high school I took a shop class and enjoyed it but it wasnt until I was in law school that I took up woodworking as a serious hobby. Its what I did for relaxation.”

While practicing law in Baton Rouge Louisiana Pierce began taking Friday afternoons off to work with foster teens teaching them how to build things. He also held a summer camp with inner city kids where he taught them how to build go-karts.

“It gave them a skill that no one else they knew had and it was a huge self-esteem builder ” Pierce remembers.

After his father died in 1996 Pierce gave up practicing law and moved to Wilmington where his mother lived. While teaching part time at Cape Fear Community College he launched a pilot program in 1997 at the Jervay Communities a former public housing development off Dawson Street. A handful of students participated building doghouses scooters and skateboards in the community room.

“The thing I remember most ” Pierce says “are all the other kids hanging around outside looking in the windows yelling Let us in! When can we do that? I kept thinking about it and wound up with a small grant in 1999 which enabled me to launch Kids Making It full time.”

Building the Reality

Today Kids Making It is open seven days a weekweekdays after school and part time on weekends. The full-fledged woodworking shop is equipped with power tools an art room and a retail store where youth learn vocational and entrepreneurial skills. The participants receive 100 percent profit from the sale of the items they make. In addition to the birdhouses bowls and custom-made ballpoint Cross pens the walk-up Jacobi Warehouse storefront at 15 Water Street retails salt and pepper grinders storage boxes stools custom signs and other one-of-a kind items.

Students new to the program learn safety rules first work with hand tools and then graduate to power tools as well as a laser engraver and computer-generated numerically controlled router. In the art room DREAMS Center for Arts Education artist Loraine Scalamoni assists youth with finishing details such as hand painting faux finishing and other artistic work.

Students are referred to the program by school counselors teachers parents community resource specialists and juvenile court counselors. Most youth come from single-family homes with low to moderate incomes. While most participants are guys girls are also welcome. The power shop is limited to youth ages 13 and up but KMI serves students 8 and up through summer camps and outreach programs in elementary schools. The student mentor ratio is 3-to-1.

Ian “Mac” McCachern community resource specialist for Learning Perspectives says he has recommended several kids for KMI.

“Its an amazing programthe whole structure and visceral feel of working with the wood really helps some kids ” McCachern insists. “One of my guys in the program saved all the money he earned with his sales and bought his own lathe and set up his own business.”

Full-time social worker Bonnie Gaynor offers job readiness and life-skills training to older youth as well as one-on-one assistance to help students transition from high school to the workforce or higher education. Gaynor who is an artist herself can often be found in the art room or woodworking shop. “Its a great way of connecting with the kids ” Gaynor says. “It allows me to gain their respect observe changes in behavior or personality and helps kids open up to me.”

KMI also imparts a doing-for-others mentality in its programming. Participants are involved in several community projects such as building flowerboxes and raised gardening beds for public-housing neighborhoods raised planter boxes with bench seating for downtown Wilmington and bench seating for New Hanover County Juvenile Day Treatment Center among others.

Paying It Forward

The organization has five full-time staff members a couple of part-timers and half a dozen volunteers. “Everyone on staff teaches in addition to their primary job ” stresses Jeff Citrin associate director. Jeffrey N. Davies a retired engineer and accomplished woodturner instructs four days a week. “Its great to come to work and do what you enjoy doing most ” Davies says.

Students who have gone through the program also return to volunteer or mentor whenever possible. Joseph Seltzer who was in the program for five years and is now studying accounting at Cape Fear Community College says he comes back as often as he can. “Woodworking is fun and therapeutic ” Seltzer adds. “I have Aspergers Syndrome and it calms my mind especially woodturning.”

Tyrell “Pop” Brockington 24 started in the program when he was 14. After graduating from Hoggard High School he began working full time as KMIs custom work supervisor which allowed him to move out of public housing and rent his own apartment. Today “Pop” is a role model to younger kids in the program. “KMI changed the direction of my life and gave me the opportunity to be somewhere I never thought Id be ” Brockington says.

Many students in the KMI program have successfully transitioned to college or the workforce. Two high school graduates from the program are currently involved in an apprenticeship with IKA-Works Inc. in Wilmington working 40 hours a week and continuing their education at Cape Fear Community College. Another high school senior was mentored by a local architect who helped him complete his senior project and prepare a portfolio for his college application. Today that student is attending college on a scholarship. Another KMI student is being mentored by a retired cabinet maker.

What the Future Holds

Renting downtown has its advantages but KMI needs a larger facility if it is to continue to grow and provide resources for more youth. Pierce says the ABC TV series “Extreme Makeover” has been in contact with KMI to possibly help but before that can move forward KMI must find property on which to build.

KMI has also had many requests for help in replicating the program in other communities and cities. My dream is to not have to worry about money ” Pierce says. “Id love to be on the road for a few days every month helping other communities set up a program if we didnt have to spend so much time writing grants and fundraising just to keep our doors open.”

Pierce and KMI have received several awards including the Governors Crime Commission Award of Excellence; the University of North Carolina Wilmington Watson School of Education Razor Walker Award; the UNCW Cameron School of Business and Wilmington Business Journal Coastal Entrepreneur Award the UNCW Albert Schweitzer Award and WECT/Reeds Jewelers Cape Fear Heroes Award; and has been recommended as a National Model Program by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

But its not the awards that keep Pierce and his staff coming back day after day. “Its seeing these kids build self-esteem mature and become responsible adults and respected citizens ” Pierce insists. “Thats what KMI is all aboutgiving kids the opportunity to create something worthwhile not only in the woodworking shop but in their lives.”

Individuals and businesses that want to help KMI have several giving options. KMI accepts legacy gifts securities cash and credit card gifts and donations of equipment and professional expertise. They are also a United Way partner thus allowing workers to earmark KMI through workplace giving. For more information about giving or volunteering contact [email protected] or call 910.763.6001.