Pennsauken, NJ—As World War I raged on across the Atlantic, the New York Shipyard in Camden was busy building the nation’s warships. So much so that a neighborhood was built to house the rapidly increasing workforce needed at the shipyard. In 1920, a school for the children of what was then known as Yorkship Village opened.
On a Saturday morning almost 100 years later, seven middle schoolers from Yorkship Family School channeled the spirit of their neighborhood’s ancestors and set sail—well, more like set paddle—on the Cooper River in a kayak that they built, from the ground up, themselves.
The 12-foot kayak constructed out of white cedar strips was built under the supervision of volunteers from Urban Boatworks at the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum.
Urban Boatworks is a program offered by the nonprofit Urban Promise Ministries, a faith-based organization that includes “two schools, job training, after-school programs, boat building, expeditionary and experiential learning, college tours and faith development opportunities,” according to its website.
Fourth-grade teacher Sue Bowen learned about Urban Boatworks last year, and knew she had to get students from Yorkship Family School involved.
“Because we’re Yorkship, we’re from Fairview. Our community was built for the shipbuilders 100 years ago, and we’re celebrating our 100th year this year [in the fall],” said Bowen.
With the help from the New Jersey Education System, Urban Boatworks and the City of Camden, seven seventh- and eighth-graders were able to start building their kayak in October, and they finished this week.
“We were asked if we wanted to build a boat, and we were like, sure, because it would be a nice experience because we have never done it before,” said eighth-grader Karen Garcia.
Every Tuesday after school since October, the students made the trip to the workshop to the build the kayak. They measured and cut together dozens of strips of white cedar and glued them together, along with coat the kayak in fiberglass, epoxy and fiberglass.
“They learned everything,” said Bowen. “They used power tools, they measured, they cut. They talked about science and how it floats. They put the fiberglass and epoxy on it — they did everything.”
“It wasn’t as hard as we thought [it would be],” said Karen.
“I wouldn’t say it was hard, hard,” said seventh-grader Raul Tolentino. “It was a chill place where you could do it quickly or hang out. When we were letting it sit there and dry and stuff, we made an amplifier for your phone, so we had time to do that and we had time to work on the boat, which was fun.”
Urban Boatworks volunteer Doug Sell worked with the students to help build the kayak.
“They took pride in it, they wanted to do a good job and they were fun to work with,” said Sell. Sell has volunteered with Urban Boatworks since it started 10 years ago. He said that the most rewarding thing about volunteering is when a connection is formed.
“This year at least two of the kids said, I want my sister and my brother to be in the class next year, and I got chills when they told me that,” said Sell. “We got more than a boat, we made a connection — and they decided it was a worthwhile connection.”
According to Jim Cummings, founder of Urban Boatworks, that’s what the program is all about. Years ago, he said, one of the first students told him that he didn’t want to pursue a career in boatbuilding, instead telling him, “This is the kind of stuff that you can do with your kids.”
“That was a moment when we think, maybe that’s what this about. It’s evolved to where we’re building incredibly beautiful boats, but it's more about the kids than it is about the boats,” said Cummings.
“I’m proud of it,” said Raul of the finished kayak. “I’m nervous too because something maybe went wrong in some place.”
“They kept on joking around that they were going to sink,” said Karen.
Those concerns were short-lived however, when the kayak was set into the river and floated with ease.
Eighth-grader Jessica McWhite was the first student to get to test the kayak out on the water. It was also the first time she had ever been in a kayak.
“At first it was scary because I didn’t know how to get in, and I had never used paddles. So it was kind of hard to manage with it,” said Jessica. “But then I kind of got it.”
“That’s a big deal for eighth graders to commit to a year long project,” said Bowen. “Their commitment, their dedication and their perseverance has amazed me… they’re all quiet about it, but I think that they can’t believe that they did this.”