Off the Block

Off the Block

From 2001 to 2007, I developed and managed the Covenant House Washington's Artisans Program.  Dreamed up and piloted by John Tierney, an amazing teacher who significantly influenced the way fine woodworking is taught in the US, the program's mission was to establish marketable skills and meaningful employment for disconnected and homeless young adults from Washington, DC.  The program was guided by the experience and passion of Larry Gold  (now CHW's Associate Executive Director), Jeffrey Barninger, Justin Couch, dedicated volunteers Jerry Marenburg, Bob Hughes,  Brian Wright, Solon Candage, Joe Lapp,  the Washington Woodworker's Guild and many other fine woodworkers from the national Capital region.  Larry and the team were anchors and mirrors for the Artisans - ensuring personal needs were met, legal services were available, and an honest, open heart was always there for the young men and women we served.

Artisans, aged 17 - 21, applied for six-month positions, and worked through levels of participation - from apprentice to member - while receiving a stipend, GED classes, a daily meal, metro fare and other critical supports and services. Each  created a prescribed set of incrementally more challenging projects, from small boxes to full-size hall tables, using hand and machine tools in our professionally equipped woodshop.  The Artisans developed their hand skills. surfacing and dimensioning hardwoods, accurately processing sheet goods, and creating products for a variety of end users.  More importantly, the practiced critical life skills, building mutual trust, self-respect, and a clear sense of their goals and abilities.  

 After a significant mention in the Washington Post, along with mentions in Fine Woodworking and WOOD magazines, the Off the Block project - a wooden gift and recognition item enterprise - took off. Over the course of four years, Off the Block created gifts and recognition items for countless DC and national businesses and nonprofits, and earned a long-term position as a vendor at regional craft and cultural festivals, including the historic Eastern Market.  

 We always knew that each Artisan chose to participate, at the expense of other opportunities on the street. There was fast money to be made in the community,  and our "slow money" choice was full of structure and high expectations.  Covenant House's mission of providing unconditional support for youth - even after thefts, threats or significant broken promises - was always brought to bear in the shop.  The door was always open to Artisans, and many who received second and third chances went on to long-term employment and personal stability.

After I left to move on to working with the See Forever Foundation in 2007, the Artisans program continued it's core mission - creating employment through skill building - by focusing on creating tables and chairs for families, as a common meeting and bonding tool.  The program closed in 2010, as the economy worsened, and CHW focused it's resources on other employment preparation and placement services for youth.  Please consider supporting Covenant House Washington and their ongoing efforts to house, help, and create real hope for the young people they serve.