VISTA — A cathartic program at New Haven Youth and Family Services gives students a creative outlet to build various skillsets.
The nonprofit school assists students with behavioral and learning challenges their public schools can’t address, but through programs such as woodworking, students flourish.
Taylor Sutherland, who teaches the woodworking program, said the elective class provides an outlet for students to refocus and work on their creations. In addition, the program also incorporates a business model, New Haven Woodcrafts, Etc., which the top-level students join to sell the items made in the class, such as pens, cutting boards, yo-yos, ice cream scoops and more.
“We do a lot of turning projects,” Sutherland said. “We got a wall there with a lot of pop art. I’m just trying to meet them where they’re interested.”
The school received a sizable donation from the late Tony Gwynn, the San Diego Padres legend, about 15 years ago to jump-start the program. Initially, Sutherland said, students crafted Adirondack furniture, but with Gwynn’s donation, the school was able to expand the footprint for the shop.
As for the business side, Sutherland said the students must work their way up through the apprenticeship master program. Once eligible, the students are like employees at a typical job, where the must meet the demands of their projects, as well as following safety protocols.
Once they complete their items, the products go up on a website dedicated to the program.
In addition, the entrepreneur program, which is another component, allows the students to sell their items outside of the school. Sutherland said when a student makes a sale, it brings self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment with it.
Also, the students learn aspects the supply chain, which includes the cost of wood, how to competitively price items, market them and eventually make a sale.
“It’s not intended to make money, this is a nonprofit,” said Chris Cates, community relations director for New Haven. “It’s to give the kids experience and awareness. A lot of it is therapeutic in the sense that the kids get to go through all the motions of getting orders, making them and they’re the ones to sell them.”
Students Hayden Smelcer, a 16-year-old junior, and Luke Records, a 15-year-old sophomore, said they both enjoy the program and the creativity it brings. Smelcer, who also has a home wood shop, is in his third year of the program at New Haven.
He has qualified as a journeyman and is now working toward becoming a master through the apprenticeship program.
“It’s definitely a safe environment and it’s a good place to get out of class,” Smelcer said. “It’s a good place to get away from all the stress of work and doing schoolwork.”
Records said he gets a lot of support and it helps him cope with the stresses of the day. He, like Smelcer, has also risen through the ranks to master and is now a teacher’s assistant helping the younger students learn and hone their skills in the room.
“It motivates you a lot to be your best,” Records said. “It’s a privilege. You can’t have bad behaviors and come in here.”