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All Hands Boat Works builds community by teaching young people to build boats

By Katlin Connin,


“There are long boats and short boats afloat on the boundless sea!” Bill Nimke calls out. “The best ships are friendships; long may that ever be!”

Bill’s toast is met with a round of hurrahs – a well-deserved celebration. Students from All Hands Boat Works launched their newest vessel, the White Swam, at McKinley Marina in Milwaukee.

It all starts at the All Hands Boat Works shop on 12 th . Bill started this program about 10 years ago with a lofty goal – to teach young people how to build boats.

“If you ask a lot of kids who first get involved with us, they don’t really know what it’s all going to be about,” Bill says. “Very, very few of them have had any experience using tools or woodworking machinery.”

“I didn’t really believe it!” says student Aidsa Salazar. “I was like, ‘you can actually build a boat? Kids building a boat? No way.’”

But Aidsa and her fellow builders have learned a lot. Htuet Sanwin says he’s been cutting, joining, laminating and more.

“The project I’m working on right now is the oars,” Htuet says. “Which are basically like the paddles for the boat.”

“All of the lessons that you’d find in the classroom, we can touch on here and support and teach as well in a very hands-on way,” Bill says.

Which means students in the program usually see their grades improve. But youth program coordinator Elijah Borg says these kids are learning much larger lessons.

“I think the values that they get from it – hard work, teamwork, focus – I think that can be brought into anything,” Elijah says.

One of those values is confidence. Htuet says his teachers bring it out in him.

“They’re very caring and they care about what I think,” he says. “They’re not rejecting any ideas of mine.”

“Having confidence and having that believe that you can really do something can really help you in your future,” Aidsa adds.

But, Bill says sometimes that confidence takes a while to fully kick in.

“Right up until the day the boat is launched, they believe that the boat is going to sink!”

So imagine just how shocked and awed the students were to see the White Swan bobbing on the water.

“A lot of these kids are from inner-city Milwaukee and haven’t even had much experience with the lake. So, to build a boat and then put it on the water and get on it, it’s kind of like – you can’t even put words to it, you know?” Elijah muses. “It’s just building a community. You know, they’re all in the boat together now. Literally – we’re all in it together.”

All Hands Boat Works celebrated its 10-year anniversary by launching 7 boats, all built by students over the years.

If you’re looking to get involved, summer camp programs kick off in June. Just follow this link for more information.

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