In a workshop at the South Bay Marina in Green Bay, you might find a quiet room full of busy young people mesmerized not by smartphones, but instead by a 100-year-old boat design slowly coming back to life.
Launched in 2016 by Mark Hawkins and his wife, Kelly, the Green Bay organization Hands on Deck has engaged and taught dozens of youth the craft of wooden boat-building, bringing them together with adult mentors who are also learning the science and art of the traditional craft.
“We’re in direct response to a growing need for the unserved group of kids that I feel are really at risk,” says Hawkins, president and founder. “If these kids don’t get mentorship, they’re not going to be an asset to the community.”
Hands on Deck, which won the Community Partnership Award from the NEW Manufacturing Alliance at its Excellence in Manufacturing/K12 Partnerships Awards in October, has provided more than 100 classes for the Green Bay Area Public School District, Brown County Public Library, Brown County PALS and Victory Academy in northern Wisconsin, with a special focus on at-risk youth.
Additionally, its mentorship program teaches adults boat-building skills in exchange for becoming a youth mentor, Hawkins says.
“The deal is we’ll teach you and build your skill level so you can be a better woodworker and build boats, but you’re then going to share this information with the kids,” he says.
So far, most mentors have been retired men, but Hands on Deck has formed a steering committee to get more girls in the program and is looking for more women mentors. The nonprofit also offers evening classes for kids and parents, workshops for Scout groups and other community classes such as snowshoe building.
Its flagship offering, though, is a summer-long apprenticeship program for kids from the Brown County Health & Human Services’ PALS program, which matches kids from Child Protective Services with adult volunteer mentors.
Hands on Deck started out on the third floor of the Brown County Library, getting its public christening at the Tall Ship Festival in 2016, having been offered booth space by Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance.
Hawkins and his wife are wedding photographers, and during the winter, he built fine furniture in a shop in his garage. “I got a commission for a boat, and it just looked interesting to me,” Hawkins says.
When some young helpers worked with him on the project, Hawkins discovered the national program Building to Teach, which brings math and science to kids through hands-on projects, and was inspired to create his own organization.
“(Building a boat) is very difficult, and I think everybody, no matter what age, you enjoy a challenge,” Hawkins says. “The kids loved the challenge of compound bevels and all the difficulties of putting your boat together, so we started at the library.”
Hawkins says middle school students are ideal to work with because they usually haven’t formed a direction and are enthusiastic about trying something new. The youngsters might not continue with woodworking later, but maybe will switch to autobody, make fiberglass boats or become an architect.
“But wood is a great medium to kind of empower them, and you can do it cheap,” Hawkins says.
Not only do the kids work with hand tools, they restore old donated boats as well. What they’re learning is kind of boots-on-the-ground technical education.
“That’s kind of what we are — we’re the Navy SEALS,” Hawkins says. “And what’s great about it is we’ve surrounded ourselves with board members and mentors that really want to take their skills to the next level. The kids are teaching the mentors, the mentors are teaching the kids, and we’re making beautiful stuff. It’s just awesome.”
Once the youth and adults set aside their regular daily busyness and pick up the tools, a transformation happens. “I can’t really explain all of it, other than to say it’s kind of magical, and it works,” Hawkins says.
Franz says Hawkins’ passion for mentorship and enthusiasm for craftsmanship is contagious, helping kids learn the excitement of building something.
“Many kids do not have the opportunity like in years past to have that hands-on experience working with tools,” Franz says. “It’s really a lost art. At the alliance, we talk to companies about training initiatives, and what are the skill sets needed for entry-level individuals — hand tools is one of them.”