Tacoma Community Boat Builders

It was with no small degree of pleasure, and a bit of surprise, that I received an end-of-year e-letter from the Tacoma Community Boat Builders (TCBB) organization, signed by Paul Birkey; he’s the founder and CEO of Belina Interiors, the Washington-based company featured in PBB No. 97 (“Interiors to Go,” page 108). Belina is a high-end wood shop that caters mostly to large motoryachts, working with boatbuilders and designers, but also possesses skills useful to land-based architectural projects. The letter made it clear that as a successful businessman as well as artisan and craftsman, Birkey has found a way to give back to his community in a very meaningful way.

Paul Birkey founder of a boat-building training program for at-risk teenagersCourtesy TCBB

Paul Birkey, left, who owns nearby Belina Interiors, founded the training program Tacoma Community Boat Builders (TCBB) to help at-risk teenagers learn a trade and develop an appreciation and affection for boats and the sea.

A deeper look revealed that TCBB is a nonprofit organization matching at-risk teenagers with mentors from the marine industries, meeting in its downtown 4,200-sq-ft (391m2) shop, fully outfitted for small wooden boat construction (Birkey equipped the shop with surplus tools from Belina). The program’s aim goes far beyond teaching how to build a wooden boat, to teaching life skills and lessons of self-discipline, assuming responsibility, creative problem solving, self-confidence, and the fun stuff, like small-boat handling and “the joy of navigating on the water in a vessel that they have helped to create.”

Founded in 2012, TCBB works with the Pierce County Juvenile Court to provide community support by way of job training and mentoring some of the 400 or so youths in the court system at any given time. Each person—most are young men—is assigned a mentor, one-on-one, who is a skilled craftsman.

Birkey, who is well connected in the local marine industry, said he decided to make at-risk teenagers the beneficiaries of his new organization, because studies show that incarceration doesn’t work well, and that community-based programs to help youth do. So he contacted Tom Larkin, the Pierce County Superior Court judge, and “he jumped all over it.” Larkin (now retired) told him, “We need this program. You supply the shop, and we’ll supply the kids and supervision.” The county provides transportation to and from the shop, which initially was open for activities two days a week but is soon expanding to five. Each 10-week program accepts roughly 10 kids.

Birkey feels fortunate to not only have attracted a “cadre of mentors/craftsmen” numbering around 20 but also an exceptional instructor/program facilitator in Chuck Graydon, who was the boatbuilding instructor at Tacoma’s Bates Technical College for 13 years; and in executive director Dr. Shannon Shea, who has a wealth of experience in education and youth empowerment.

A student and mentor paddle a canoe around the harbor.Courtesy TCBB

Teens enrolled in the TCBB program not only learn how to build wooden boats but also take them out on the water. Here, a student and mentor paddle a canoe around the harbor.

Of course, any program involving boats needs to provide on-water time, and TCBB does—in the boats built by the program, and on boats gifted to the organization, such as the 24 (7.3m) captain’s gig and several dories. Birkey said other organizations around the country are beginning to look at what TCBB is doing, which he rightly regards as affirmation that “we must be doing something right.” The juvenile court agrees, letting Birkey and his team know when a graduate excels in his future endeavors. “A lot of kids are withdrawn at first,” he says. “They don’t want to be there and then turn into kids who don’t want to leave.”

Tacoma Community Boat Builders, shop: 1120 East D St., Tacoma, WA 98421 USA; mail: 4540 S. Adams St., #403, Tacoma, WA 98409 USA, tel. 253–720–8227, website tacomaboatbuilders.org.