Job Corps Center project builds skills, camaraderie and boats

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The Job Corps boaters had McCarron Lake to themselves. Not surprising, since it was November 21 and the water temperature was only slightly above freezing.

With a little nervousness and a lot of excitement, they slid their crafts into the water. This was the first launch of two hand-crafted boats that had been occupying these eight builders for almost three months.

The project that brought these students to McCarron Lake was a collaboration between the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center, located in the Como Park neighborhood, and Urban Boatbuilders, a youth service agency in St. Paul. It was the brainchild of Job Corps instructor Renee Peek.

Building boats is only the first step in a much larger project that Peek dreamed up. Eventually it will involve floating the boats on the Mississippi River, visiting several river towns and writing a book about the experience.

Peek got the idea after discovering that books about Mississippi River towns in Minnesota tend to be either fact or fiction. She envisioned a book that would be both and that would be written by students.

“Students like a bit of story involvement,” she said. “I thought it would be nice for them to contribute a book that was both fact and fiction. And the boats themselves are just the first step in a very long project.”

The November 21 launch was a great success. “It was cold and windy,” Peek said, “but I had to drag the students off the water. The boats are amazing — very fast and maneuverable.”

Peek has been with Job Corps for 19 years. Formerly a culinary instructor, she now teaches work-based training classes.

The boat-building project is part of a new Job Corps program called Career Success Standards, which focuses on information management, multicultural awareness, workplace ethics, teamwork and communication.

Students worked in teams separated by gender. Peek’s idea was to set up some friendly competition and to create an atmosphere where collaboration would flourish.

“The goal was to have two boats, built separately but with assistance from each team,” she said. “It was all about cooperation.”

Tackling something completely new and trying to do it as a group was sometimes stressful, Peek said, an observation confirmed by the students.

“Everybody did a little bit of everything,” said Tracy Lindberg, who has been at the Job Corps Center for almost a year and will soon move to South Dakota to use the skills she learned at the center. “It’s a project that took all of our hands and a lot of time. You have to keep working even if you are frustrated and people start getting on your nerves. You learn to get over it.”

“I’ve never seen a group of students react better under stress,” said Peek. “That’s what I wanted to see — that they could be faced with a huge challenge, get angry and still continue and help each other, finding that frustration doesn’t need to stop them.”

Peek said that when another staff member asked the students if they all got along while they were working, they answered without hesitation that they did not. “But we had work to do,” said one.

“These are amazing kids,” said Peek, “and they can do anything they put their minds to.”

Although the men vs. women nature of the project fueled some competition, the two groups assisted each other along the way.

The men finished their boat first, which student Tracy Lindberg attributed to the fact that the women helped them out. “Plus,” she joked, “they don’t stop to talk as much.”

The two groups followed the same general guidelines but were building two different styles of boats.

“The guys’ boat is more flat, like a barge, and ours is more of a U-shape,” said Lindberg. “Theirs has more durability but ours is faster. But they both float; they both work.”

Peek said the next step in the project will be to use the boats to visit several Mississippi River towns and gather material for the book.

“They will decide as a group which towns to visit, who to talk to there and what history to use,” she said.

The Job Corps, founded in 1964, is a residential employ-ment training program for young adults. It is administered through the U.S. Department of Labor and funded by Congress.

Its mission is “to attract eligible young adults, teach them the skills they need to become employable and independent, and place them in meaningful jobs or further education.” The Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center, located on Snelling Avenue across from the State Fairgrounds, is one of 122 centers nationwide.

Urban Boatbuilders is a youth service agency that uses wooden boatbuilding to support positive youth development, academic achievement and the development of skills that help young people find and keep jobs. They work with young people in schools, after school and in correctional settings.

“They were great to let us use their space,” said Peek. “They have a remarkable way with students.”

Peek said she hopes the Job Corps’ partnership with Urban Boatbuilders will continue.

“Watching the students was just remarkable,” she said. “They would watch Phil Winger at Urban Boatbuilders and get confident about their work. They knew they could do it. They went from a bent piece of wood to a boat. It was amazing.”