Story and photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham
Walking into the Community Boat Building center is an instant escape from the city. The smell of newly sanded wood introduces the bright workspace filled with unfinished rowboats, neatly organized tools, and busy children using noisy power drills.
The boat building program supplements a typical 5th grade curriculum and allows Boston Public School students to build life-sized, seaworthy wooden rowboats. So seaworthy, that come each spring, a party is held to launch their boats into the water to enjoy over the summer.
“A lot of the kids we work with are from low income families and don’t have the same kinds of experiential opportunities their wealthier peers may have,” said Stockton Reece, executive director of the boat building program. “The Coast Guard’s involvement is fantastic because even though many of our students have grown up just miles from the ocean, they do not know anything about boats or what it means to be on the water.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Lindsey Cole, who coordinated the Coast Guard’s involvement with the program, said volunteers come from both Coast Guard Station Boston and the First Coast Guard District Staff.
“We have members who work in the wood shop to help prepare materials and build boats, and we have Station Boston crewmembers who use their response boats to teach students boating and water safety, either at the schools on a trailer, or in the water at the station and district moorings,” said Cole.
Cole said she values the partnership because it allows Coast Guard members an opportunity to offer a significant and positive impact on the lives of Boston youth – and as a bonus, reach a demographic of children who may not have any exposure to boating or water safety.
The hands-on program was founded in 2007 when John Rowse, a 5th grade teacher, was looking for a different way to teach his students. Inspired by his own love for woodworking, Rowse helped his class build a wooden boat in the school’s hallway − and quickly found his students engaged in a way they had not been while sitting at their desks.
Now, nearly a decade later, the Community Boat Building team works with every 5th grade student at Young Achievers School in Mattapan and The Harvard Kent School in Charlestown, two of Boston’s neighborhoods.
The Coast Guard’s involvement came in early 2016 when Cole saw an opportunity for her service to contribute to a maritime-related educational program.
According to Reece, building a boat provides an educational experience not often found in a classroom.
“Kids who struggle with abstract learning, like doing fractions on a sheet of paper, can really measure and see dimensions and fractions come to life as create their own boats from scratch,” said Reece.
The 11-day process to design and complete each boat grows spatial reasoning ability, builds confidence, encourages teamwork, and helps kids focus in class because they see tangible results in what they are learning. Reece said an important piece to the program’s success is that there is no selectivity. Every 5th grader in participating schools receives the opportunity to build a boat, regardless of the student’s academic success or behavior in the classroom.
“Coast Guard members serve as great role models here for our kids,” said Reece. “They provide great physical help in actually building the boats, but they also offer leadership and experience to the kids.”
The encouragement Coast Guard volunteers offer to the young community members builds inspiration and excitement, Reece said. He explained how working with the Coast Guard opens the students’ eyes to a new world because the kids get to learn about service, immerse in some of Boston’s rich maritime heritage, and discover they can learn a trade and how to work with their hands.
“There is something about being able to manipulate the world around you,” said Reece. “Our kids are often in situations where they don’t feel like they are in control of their environment. Here, they can control it and build it into something.”
The program’s overall goal is to close the achievement gap in Boston. Since its founding, more than 1,000 students have benefitted from the program on Boston’s waterfront.
“In addition to the relevant knowledge they learn throughout the program, working hand-in-hand with the Coast Guard gives students confidence to actually go out on the boats they created,” said Cole. “Our hope is this will grow their self-confidence in other aspects of their lives.”
This is truly a win-win all around, Cole said.
Protecting the nation’s shores and saving people in distress on the water is the root of Coast Guard service, but serving the community with a unique, educational maritime project is now another truly special mission.