Young women navigate through their probation

Boat-building program helps at-risk teens

4/15/2013
BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER
 The group of young women, ages 15-18, works on smoothing the outside of the 16-foot canoe they are building at the Sofia Quintero Arts and Cultural Center as part of their rehabilitation.
The group of young women, ages 15-18, works on smoothing the outside of the 16-foot canoe they are building at the Sofia Quintero Arts and Cultural Center as part of their rehabilitation.

It’s early Saturday morning, and 16-year-old Marissa Schoenegge pauses to wipe the sweat and sawdust from her face.

A moment later, she resumes sawing pieces of thick wood for several minutes. Then she tackles her next assignment and begins furiously scraping away at the wooden shell that is slowly beginning to take the shape of a large boat.

“Who else do you know that can paint their nails, play the saxophone, wear a dress, and build a boat,” Ms. Schoenegge says out loud. “If I can do this, then no man can tell me they’re stronger than me.”

Ms. Schoenegge is among six young women, ages 15-18, who are participating in a boat-building project that is part of the Lucas County Juvenile Court’s Community Integration and Training and Employment Program.

The purpose of the court-ordered program is to provide youth on probation with job-training skills and prepare them for reintegration into the community, said Charlie Johnson, program manager for the court program.

The project is designed to teach the young women skills and enhance their self-esteem and self-efficacy, learn how to work in a team environment, and improve their communication skills.

“We’re trying to build successful women, not really boats,” Mr. Johnson said.

But the young women are really building a boat — a full-size canoe that when completed will be 16 feet long and weigh 65 pounds, Alicia Smith, assistant youth project supervisor, said.

Instructor Mike Claus, right, works with the teenagers on the canoe that they eventually will ride in. Mr. Claus, an expert boat builder as well as a full-time bus driver, said he was impressed with the group of six young women.
Instructor Mike Claus, right, works with the teenagers on the canoe that they eventually will ride in. Mr. Claus, an expert boat builder as well as a full-time bus driver, said he was impressed with the group of six young women.

The young women are working under the guidance of Mike Claus, an experienced boat builder, who works full time as a bus driver in the Toledo area.

In previous years, the boat-building project was only offered to troubled young men, Mr. Claus said, adding that this is the first time he’s worked with a group of women.

Whispering so that the young women can’t hear him, Mr. Claus admits that the women listen better to directions and work harder than any of the boy groups he’s worked with.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” he said. “It’s been better than expected. They’ve been tremendous.”

For the last seven weeks the six women have gathered at the Sofia Quintero Arts & Cultural Center to work on the canoe from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., program officer Elizabeth Sepeda said.

Several of the young women were ordered by the courts to participate in the program as part of their rehabilitation, Ms. Sepeda said. Other participants have not been in trouble, but were recruited to serve as mentors and role models.

All of the women work together as equals.

“I like it a lot, because I’m learning new skills and making new friends,” 15-year-old Mia Michalak said. “I’d rather be doing something like this than doing something I’m not supposed to.”

A teen smooths the boat. Not all the participants in the group are in trouble; some serve as mentors and role models to the other young women.
A teen smooths the boat. Not all the participants in the group are in trouble; some serve as mentors and role models to the other young women.

Ms. Schoenegge said although its hard work, she enjoys the challenge of building a boat.

“When I first heard, I thought we were going to build a small boat in a bottle,” she said before bursting into laughter. “Teamwork is important because you can’t do this by yourself.”

The program is 17 weeks long. When the boat is finished, the women will have the opportunity to take a ride in it at a local lake, 16-year-old Alexis Smith said. The boat will be sold later this summer, and the women will split the profits.

Ms. Schoenegge already knows what she’s doing with her portion.

“I’m saving money so that someday I can go to Japan and see the Golden Palace,” she said.

This program has given her hope for a better future, said Ms. Schoenegge, who is working to complete her GED. Someday she hopes to become a veterinarian, and if she can save enough money, attend law school.

“Two years ago it was pretty rough,” Ms. Schoenegge said. “We were moving around a lot. But it’s getting a little better.

“This program is making me stronger and more confident,” she said. “I’m starting to believe in myself.”

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.