Three months ago, 16-year-old Henry Sowells didn’t know the first thing about woodworking. Now, he has people asking him to renovate their kitchens.

Henry is quick to say he can’t install your granite countertops, but he can build you furniture out of pine. Henry, a rising junior at Walt Whitman High, has turned his budding hobby into an act of goodwill with help from his father, David. For every piece of furniture Henry builds and sells to neighbors, he is donating all the proceeds to a local nonprofit, Bethesda Cares, which serves those experiencing homelessness in Montgomery County.

So far, after four weeks of selling furniture, Henry has raised more than $830 for the nonprofit.

“Henry just got really into it,” David Sowells told The Washington Post. “We definitely didn’t think it would go quite as crazy as it has."

After schools shut down in the Washington region in mid-March because of the growing number of novel coronavirus cases, David and Henry started a six-week online woodworking course from Steve Ramsey, a YouTube creator who uploads instructional videos for those interested in learning the craft.

When Henry’s high school classes moved online, Henry and his family noticed that the school district’s priority was making sure students with free and reduced-price meals had food. There were frequent discussions around the Sowellses’ dinner table about the wealth disparity in the United States, which led Henry to his idea — to sell the furniture he has built and donate the profits to people nearby who are fighting hunger.

“I’m shocked that — in 2020 in the richest country in the world — around 40 million Americans (including 16 [million] kids) struggle with hunger,” Henry wrote on his website for the project. “I want to do something to help.”

Henry sells seven different products for a variety of prices — a small bench costs $100, wooden crates are $35, and a patio table is $85. Each item on the website includes a cost breakdown for the parts and how much money would go to Bethesda Cares. For example, he explains that for the $100 bench, parts cost $60 and $40 goes to Bethesda Cares. Henry said some customers have paid more than the asking price, and he donates any extra money to the nonprofit.

Most of the designs come from the tutorials that Henry followed with his dad. But he also created his own design for a raised planter bed after a request from a customer.

All the pieces can be stained, lacquered or painted, and he also offers to build the same products using other types of wood at an extra cost.

“It’s very satisfying to make stuff for people,” Henry said over the phone. “I just enjoy making these products.”

All this is thanks, in part, to YouTube. Henry said if he doesn’t know how to do something, he just searches for a video tutorial.

“We wouldn’t have learned how to do any of this stuff if there wasn’t this online YouTube course,” he added.

David Sowells learned the basics of woodworking along with Henry, but he said Henry runs the show. David’s contribution is that he drives three times a week to Home Depot so he can stock up on wood and other supplies. So far, Henry has received 50 orders and has built 20 of them. The most popular item is the bench. He said it will take him until late July or early August to complete the current backlog of orders.

Ramsey, the woodworker Henry learned from on YouTube, said a lot of people are getting into woodworking since the first wave of stay-at-home orders. Ramsey said he is getting twice the number of views on his tutorials than before the pandemic.

Ramsey said he hadn’t heard about Henry’s operation, but he was glad to know his classes inspired another person to get into woodworking. Ramsey was also blown away by how much furniture Henry has already made.

“That’s fantastic. I mean, most professional woodworkers can’t get in those kind of numbers,” Ramsey said.

Henry’s first orders came from dog walkers in his neighborhood, Woodhaven. To get the ball rolling, Henry made one of every product he offers and set up a display in his driveway. That way, when people walked by, they could see the furniture and take a flier to learn more about how to buy their own stool or bench.

Last week, Fox5 came by Henry’s garage to interview him about the project. Henry said that he then received 20 orders overnight.

“I expected the neighbors to be kind and generous, which they have been,” David Sowells said. “I certainly didn’t expect the attention that it’s got.”

Genie Wetstein lives across the street from the Sowellses and saw Henry’s display on the driveway when she was taking a walk through the neighborhood. Wetstein said she admires that Henry is taking his free time this summer to learn woodworking for a good cause.

“I think it’s marvelous that he was resourceful and he found something else to do that was meaningful to him,” Wetstein, 73, said. “I sew a lot, so it’s very nice to see young people turning to making things that they enjoy, that they feel creative in."

Heading into the summer, Henry was going to intern at a local dentist’s office, but the coronavirus made that impossible. Now he is waiting to start training with the Whitman football team, but it isn’t clear how or when football will start or even when school will begin again.

Depending on how the school year goes, Henry’s plan is to keep building and selling furniture through the end of the year. Henry said he already has ideas to make cutting boards or other gifts around the holidays.

“If football doesn’t happen, then I’ll have a lot of time to build all these projects,” Henry said. “And if school doesn’t happen, maybe then I’ll have a lot of time as well.”

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