Each apprentice in the Maritime Apprentice Program in Boston has a history with gangs. Apprentices work in teams, building and restoring a range of vessels, some as long as 40 feet.

Credit: Hull Lifesaving Museum

Shipbuilding Program Offers Young Offenders A Lifeline

July 25, 2013

Boston’s Marine Industrial Park is about a mile from the Moakley Federal Courthouse, where a jury and others are hearing the alleged crimes of reputed mobster “Whitey” Bulger.

It’s here that young men considered some of the most high-risk youth in the Department of Youth Services system gather daily to try and create a new path for themselves.

Trevor is one of 20 apprentices enrolled in what’s called the Maritime Apprentice Program – or MAP. Each apprentice has a history with gangs, so for their protection, we’ve agreed not to identify them by their real names. Trevor said he he’s learning how to build boats in the program.

“This is my first time around boats. I never really been around boats like that,” he said. “So, when I first came... I’m like, ‘ah man, I don’t think I can do this.’ But that’s when I started to do it and engage in it, and it was good.”

Apprentices such as Trevor work in teams, building and restoring boats as long as 40 feet. Intense, year-round training introduces them to everything from carpentry and woodworking to electrical and plumbing systems.

But, on this day, the tasks are much simpler. Trevor and another apprentice we’ll call Daniel are cleaning the interior of a 20-foot vessel. The 90-plus degree heat is not ideal for scrubbing and vacuuming, but Trevor and Daniel, along with an instructor, work through it.

Trevor and the instructor work side-by-side, scrubbing and scraping from one end to the next. Daniel, who’s tasked with hauling off the buckets of water from the vacuum, said these skills –both big and small – are a learning experience.  

“It teaches you mathematics,” he said. “You gotta learn how to bend wood, make certain shapes. It’s a good experience. It’s good life skills.” 

An instructor and an apprentice in the Maritime Apprentice Program work on restoring a ship. A study by the group Root Cause found that 69 percent of apprentices have not been arrested since starting MAP.
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Photo Credit: Greater Boston / WGBH

And it’s building good life skills, which is the main goal of MAP, said supervisor Ed Norton.

“We’re asking guys to take a risk with where they’re going in their future and what they need to do – and really, boat building and rowing are two things they never see themselves doing, but that’s not what we’re trying to be. We’re not trying to be boat builders. We’re just trying to get guys to think of themselves in a way that they have a future,” he said.

Norton has helped run MAP since it began in 2004. After doing stints in construction, corrections work and practicing as a lawyer, he said it was time he got back to his soul.

Norton added that MAP’s small setting enables him and other staff to spend more time working one-on-one with apprentices.

“We need to listen to what each apprentice has to say about their lives and really have them own that and basically, slowly get into a position of communication where we can build some trust – where they’ll trust us to take risks with what they see as their lives, because they’re stepping out of a safety zone of home and going out to the world that they’ve kind of shut off for the last few years, unless they’ve been locked up,” he said.

Trevor said it’s that type of attention that can make a difference.

“They really, really help you… they make sure you do stuff, and if you don’t do it, they’ll bring you there,” he said. “They make sure you hold your word, basically.”

Before Trevor came to MAP, he had been fired from his job at Dunkin Donuts and said he would just stay home, doing nothing most days. He said he believes he got in touch with MAP at the right time in his life. Daniel’s situation before MAP was much similar.

“I was just basically doing nothing positive, just chillin’ around in the streets – nothing really motivating me to do anything positive,” he said. “I came here... Got my GED out the way, and it’s just steps and steps. I’m just climbing up the ladder from here.”

Daniel said before MAP he went through another program for young offenders, but the outcomes weren’t the same.

“It was a lot more people. So, they couldn’t really focus on you. This right here is much smaller. It’s a shop, so everybody knows everybody. So they actually help you out with what you need. Over there, it was more like, ‘whatever. You come, we’re gonna pay you and you just leave.’ Here, it’s like they actually help you through life steps.”

One of those needs – and one of the program’s requirements – is school. Many apprentices haven’t been in school for two, three or, sometimes, even four years.

So in addition to the 24 hours a week they work at MAP, apprentices are also enrolled in GED or other diploma-granting classes.

The young men in MAP have all at one point been behind bars, but right now most commute to the program from home. Yet, according to MAP casework manager Barry Pritchard, home can bring a lot of threats.

“We can’t be in the heart of Boston where these guys have to look over their shoulder, or scared to come to work because of who’s out there or who they got problems with,” he said.

“The difference about this program is it’s way out the way. It’s over by the water. It’s quiet. They can come here and be themselves. They don’t have to put the front on, put the armor on and have to be back on that street mentality.”

The intimate structure of MAP is a change of pace for staffers who have previously worked in the criminal justice system. Ed Norton admitted that for him it was a difficult transition initially.

“Without having the coercion of what I had before, which was basically the power of handcuffs and locking folks up for the most part or their freedom, we don’t have that here. And other people do, but it’s not quite as immediate,” Norton said. “The idea that young people that came here really had to decide that they wanted to be here, and I had to really open my mind to what guys had to say about their lives.”

For boat instructor Monique Brunner, though, it’s also about transitioning to the work world. MAP is Brunner’s first job since graduating college last year.

She said being so close in age to the apprentices that she teaches can present both a challenge and a balancing act.

“I feel like they’re my younger brothers,” she said. “I try to find different ways to connect with them when they’re being upset, or when I find myself being upset. Just taking time to sit down and talk to them, explain it to them, give them their space too, because I remember how it was for me when I was around their age too.”

Brunner hopes to one day to do the type of social and casework that Barry Pritchard does. Pritchard’s experience has made him a familiar face to some apprentices. Before coming to MAP, Pritchard worked for DYS, where the 13 and 14-year-olds he worked with years ago are now MAP apprentices. 

“I still remember them. They still remember me. It’s still that kind of bond because I didn’t’ leave on a bad note. I left on a good note…And I see them everyday. I live in the community. I go to the store, I see them at the store. I see them at the bus, I see them at the train.”

Trevor said having that type of relationship – one that extends beyond the boat shop – is important.

“There’s a couple things that they help you with. It’s not just about a job or about money. It’s just about helping you. They wanna help you with your life. They wanna help you.”

That help has been translating into positive results. A study by the group Root Cause found that more than two-thirds of apprentices have not been arrested since starting MAP. Even more have gone on to pursue employment or college.

Both Trevor and Daniel want to be among that group. Trevor hopes the training will one day lead to a union job with a shipyard. Daniel said he plans to go to college to study business in addition to philosophy.

Editor's note: MAP Director Ed Norton, and Feliciano Tavares, from the Boston Public Health Commission, joined Greater Boston on July 30 to discuss the program.


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