Local after-school program teaches life skills through boat building


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A unique after-school program is taking hold in Norfolk. It combines math and science skills with something we see a lot of in the Tidewater area — ships.

The Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop is tucked away in a warehouse off of Ballentine Boulevard in Norfolk. Take one step inside and you’ll see a vibrant group of kids — from all walks of life — learning new skills and finding new confidence.

“The bandsaw tool looks scary,” said 7th grader Saniya Gilbert.

It’s an after-school program where you won’t find soccer balls or musical instruments – only the hum of machines and kids at work.

“It takes a lot. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, oops, like that,” said 9th grader Nasir Williams.

They’re making wooden boats.

Tom Brandl founded the Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop about three years ago. When he retired from the Marines, he started making wooden boats and realized it could teach kids a lot.

“They gain in self-confidence, they gain in the confidence to learn new things,” said Brandl.

But the students aren’t just learning how to cut and saw. Brandl says he teaches them, “communication skills, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, as well as the math. You can’t build one of these boats without using a lot of math.”

Boat building is all of that.

“It’s like a learning experience for you. I like doing more out of the way stuff,” said Gilbert. “I just like to use my hands and do stuff a lot more. Instead of just sitting there watching somebody, I want to do it.”

As she watched her brother sign up last year — even though she was out of the age range — she convinced them to let her in.

Gilbert said, “I just like being here, building the boats cause we get to sail them, that’s my other favorite part sailing, because I like to be on the water.”

It’s that sense of pride and ownership that’s the heart of the program.

“Take a pile of wood and make it into a beautiful boat and the pride that they show at the end of the project is amazing,” said Gilbert.

Most of the students come to the workshop through other organizations, like Sail Nauticus and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

“They recruit the kids out of the public housing areas that they manage,” Brandl said.

The NRHA brings the kids to the workshop, which they donated. Some may never get this chance, if it weren’t for Brandl and his team.

“It feels like wow I did it. I made this,” Williams said.

Brandl said, “The kids we have, myself, we’re all not perfect, so the boats are not perfect, but I always say they’re just right.”

There are different programs at the workshop year round. If a student sees this and wants to participate — or an adult wants to volunteer — you can reach out to them anytime.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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