Youth build chairs, rebuild their lives with craft program

CHAPIN — The whirs and whines of electric sanders, drills and saws coming from a refurbished warehouse on a recent afternoon were the sounds of young people learning to rebuild their lives.

Four nights a week, members of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Chapin help lead the Young Craftsmen and Craftswomen Class at the Department of Juvenile Justice off Broad River Road in Columbia. The class is part of an ongoing and growing effort to help young people “behind the fence,” as officials describe those who are currently serving time. They learn self-esteem along with job and communication skills which will help them once they are released.

Youth ages 12-17 come to an on-site woodworking shop after school four days a week to learn the basic carpentry skills used to make furniture and other items.

Currently, classes are all male, but girls can take part in the program also.

Funds come from a foundation set up by the Slater family of Columbia, which has been involved in helping young people at DJJ for more than a decade.

Don Tyler, who coordinates the volunteers from Our Lady of the Lake, said the Slaters donated money to convert an old warehouse on the DJJ site into a complete woodworking shop, including state-of-the-art power tools. Louise Slater is chairwoman of the Friends of Juvenile Justice, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 that works with agencies and individuals to help at-risk and incarcerated young people.  

Father Andrew J. Vollkommer, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, said their participation was initiated by Stacy Atkinson, a parishioner and director of DJJ’s “Community Behind the Fence” program.

Atkinson first worked with Father Vollkommer on an Angel Tree of gifts for youth at the facility at Christmas three years ago. From her, he learned more about the needs of children at the Broad River Road facility, and urged parishioners to become involved. Father Vollkommer now is involved with the Friends of Juvenile Justice as well.

The work of volunteers is more crucial than ever now because of deep state budget cuts that have slashed some of DJJ’s services, Atkinson said. In Columbia alone, three group homes for youth have been closed this year.

Atkinson said she would like to see more Catholics volunteer at the facility, whether individually or with a parish. Churches are an important part of the department’s support network around the state.

“When people come out here to volunteer, they begin to see the whole child,” Atkinson said. “They learn that these children want to give back in so many ways. Work with these young people is one of the ways we can celebrate being Catholic.”

Tyler said he and Deacon Charles LaRosa initially volunteered for the woodworking class on Thursday nights, but over the years parish volunteers started filling in other nights.

“Out of 11 volunteers who work Young Craftsmen’s Club, seven of them are from Lady of the Lake,” he said.

Some are experienced carpenters, but that is not a prerequisite.

“When I first started I couldn’t nail two boards together, but there were guys who had been running it for years, and they could teach us,” Tyler said. “Also, it doesn’t take long to learn the skills when you’re teaching the kids the same thing over and over.”

The program’s main products are Adirondack outdoor chairs made from treated pine. At least one chair is completed during each class. Proceeds are used to purchase more woodworking material. Some money also goes to help class members make restitution or pay for their General Equivalency Diploma test.

“This is a self-sustaining program. The state doesn’t pay for anything except the electricity we use,” Tyler said.

The students also work on other projects, including wooden pens. They recently completed some birdhouses and an owl house for a nearby riverfront park.

The Wednesday night advanced class is building desks for a new girls’ dormitory under construction on campus. In the past, class participants have also helped build a gazebo on the grounds.

“The chairs are lovely, and the kids can learn something marketable instead of sitting in the dorms and doing nothing at the end of the day,” said Father Vollkommer, who has one of the chairs on the front porch of his home. “The young men also interact with other adult males who can be good role models. The principle is that whatever you give in terms of stewardship, you get back twice, and I think a lot of the men have been very blessed by volunteering.”

 “I truly believe the Holy Spirit is at work in what we are doing at DJJ because we can see progress both in the program and in the young men,” said Deacon Charles LaRosa, who has volunteered with the program for three years. “Thanks to our volunteer efforts, we’re able to provide them in the afternoon with a place where they can use their talents and minds in a healthy and constructive way. Everyone of them that are able to complete a project has a sense of self-worth and dignity that is great to see.”

Deacon LaRosa said one of the program’s primary goals is to help the young people develop work and character skills that will help them live productive lives and avoid ending up back in the correctional system. The volunteers also simply let the kids know that there are people who care for them and understand the challenges they face.

“We try to reach out to these kids and let them know we’re there for them,” said Robert Falsetti, another volunteer. “A lot of these kids have made some poor choices in life. I’ve let them know it was tough for us when we grew up. I grew up in Detroit. We lived in a tough area and went through tough times. My parents didn’t have anything, but they worked and I worked hard. We teach the kids you have to work hard at things if you want something out of life.”

People interested in the chairs or other merchandise from the youth program can call Mike Gannon at (803) 223-1195 or e-mail him at