Ike and J.R. bounded into the wood shop on Kenilworth Avenue NE, looking fine. They left their hard street faces outside. Inside the Artisans wood shop, they showed off their new clothes, the first ties and proper shirts they'd ever owned. (J.R. just learned his shirt size for the first time.)
"The people giving jobs didn't even look half this good," James "J.R." Flemmings said of the employers at the job fair he and Issac "Ike" Lucas just visited.
At the Artisans studio, in an industrial stretch of Deanwood, Flemmings, 21 and a District native, and Lucas, 20, of Reston, are learning skills they hadn't picked up in childhoods seemingly designed to land them on the streets. The young people who make decorative boxes and fine tables there are learning not only a craft, but also how to live -- how to dress, speak and otherwise navigate the world of work.
"This is stuff you get from your family," says Matt Barinholtz, who runs Artisans for Covenant House, a Catholic charity focusing on homeless young people. "But they didn't get it."
Barinholtz noticed another job applicant's important documents stuffed into her pockets and helped her out. "The man blessed me with a wallet," says Sharvona Harper, 21, "my first. I was always walking around with stuff falling out all over, like, 'I'm cool, I don't need a wallet.' Now I am organized."
I discovered Artisans at Arts on Foot, a downtown festival where the sleek cedar and pine furniture caught my eye. Everything was made by young people who've been in trouble with the law or drugs, who came to Artisans with zero marketable skills.
Their schools often dismissed them as incapable of learning. Barinholtz, a sculptor who has been in Washington for four years, knows that's rubbish. He finds kids at shelters or at his front door and lures them into a new world.
Volunteer craftsmen teach young people who've never before worked with wood. They start with simple skills -- how to use tools, how to get by where no profanity is permitted -- and within months, they are producing quality furniture, which they sell at fairs to keep the program going. The students get a stipend, but no one does this for the money.
"Being here every day is a choice," Barinholtz says. "Every step of the way, these kids have been failed -- by their families, their schools. Here, we offer unconditional love and absolute respect. This is all about detail, about perfection. No one has ever challenged them to reach perfection before."
Lucas stays at a shelter -- a result, he says, of "bad mistakes, bad decisions." Flemmings lives at Covenant House. They both dropped out and drifted.
"All I knew was I wanted money," says Flemmings, who has been on his own since he quit Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt at 16. "I never thought about what I'd do."
Artisans was a revelation to Harper, who grew up in Southeast and attended Anacostia High through 10th grade. She has been on the streets since. Too often, that led to trouble.
Artisans has expanded Harper's world: Barinholtz took the class to the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, where they saw Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock. "It's this grandfather clock all wrapped in a white sheet, and then you get close and you see it's all carved mahogany," Harper says. "It was wild.
"Man, if they had this back when I was in school, I don't know what I could have been. I'm even turning my homies down. They say, 'You staying out tonight?' and I'm, 'No, man, I got to go to work.' " Now, she shocks herself by getting up at 6 each morning to get to work; last month, she started a job with a contractor.
"The skill deficits they come in with are daunting," says Larry Gold, a lapsed lawyer who volunteered at Artisans after running a wood shop for children in Takoma Park. "Whether they can carry the confidence with them after they leave here is an open question, but we have to try."
Several local furniture makers have hired Artisans, but the goal is not only to train craftsmen. "It's desirable to make woodworkers, but it's feasible to make taxpayers," Barinholtz says.
"We finished our first box," Harper recalls, "and I looked at it and I'm like, 'Hey, I made this joint -- I did.' "
Artisans needs volunteer woodworkers (202-610-6519 or email@example.com).
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