The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

The down-and-out get the chance to learn life and trade skills through woodwork

rhoadsAt 19, David Rhoads was living on the cold, bleak streets of Calgary.

Branded homeless, finding a job of any kind was extremely hard, he says. And when you can't afford the bus-fare to show up to your job or have no way to shower, any chance of working disappears all together, he adds.

But one day, while doing volunteer-work shovelling snow, Rhoads heard about the opportunity that, as he puts it, changed his life from "bad to good."

Rhoads is now one of the half-a-dozen students at the Drop-In Centre Woodwork Shop, a custom furniture and millwork shop affiliated with the well-known homeless shelter. The students — some homeless and some not — are trained in woodworking skills to help put them on the path to career success.

Tom Loszchuk, the woodwork shop's manager says, "Cabinet-making is a fantastic vehicle to turn people around and give them confidence, and encouragement and hope in their abilities."

The goal of the program, explains Loszchuk, is to teach students both essential life skills and trade skills that will set them up for successful and independent futures. Students learn how to maintain positive attitudes and how to install cabinets all in one place.

intstructorTom Loszchuk talks to student David Rhoads about the status of his work.

Photo by: Devon Jolie

He subscribes to the theory that there are three stages to helping others. The first is giving them food and shelter and the third is getting them a place of their own.

"There have been millions and billions of dollars spent on those two items. But the second one, which is the most critical, is getting them into a position to be self-sustainable," he says.

And that is what the woodwork shop has done for him, says Rhoads.

The once-homeless young man, now 20, proudly says that for the first time in his life, he owns his own place because of the opportunities provided by the woodwork shop. And he is a full-fledged apprentice who will be attending SAIT in the coming months to work towards his journeymen status in cabinet-making.

He says, "Coming here — to the woodwork shop — (has given me) the skills that I need to put me in a good situation." And with hopes of becoming a physics teacher one day, the life and practical skills are invaluable, he adds.

"There is nobody out there like us," says Loszchuk. Not only do the professional staff teach trade skills to the students for free, but they also pay their students — not a lot, but enough — so they can continue to provide for themselves, he says.

Enabling people to help themselves

In 2000, the Woodwork Shop Training Program was created by the Drop-In Centre, commonly known as the DI, to do just that. The shop takes requests from the average home-owner looking for custom cabinets to building conference tables for businesses downtown, says Loszchuk. The profits from the sale of the work go towards paying the students, who build them, and funding the facility, he says.

Another one of those students is Mandi Stanbury.

The single-mom has been on a long road to finding success.

Two weeks into Grade 10, Stanbury dropped out of school and moved out of home. For five years she worked full-time, starting in fast-food and slowly moving her way up. At the age of 20, she found herself on the doorsteps of wood-shops, hoping to find someone to take her under their wing and apprentice her as a journeywoman. The few who took her on with promises of apprenticeships, never kept their end of the bargain, she says.

finishedAll the profits from the sale of items, such as this wine box, go towards paying the students and funding the facility.

Photo by: Devon Jolie

"No one would [apprentice] me," Stanbury says. "I got a lot of empty promises over the years." Trades, like wood-work, are traditionally a male-dominated field and as a result, the small woman found herself fighting to be recognized, she says. After numerous "trial periods" of proving her worth, her dreams of apprenticing were repeatedly withheld, she says.

But Stanbury, who exudes a take-no-prisoners spirit, never gave up. And for that, she is finally being rewarded. After 10 years of searching, working and waiting, the single-mom is finally taking an entrance exam at SAIT so she can begin the four-year process of becoming a journeywoman.

"(At the Woodwork Shop), it doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from, it matters what is in your heart," she says.

Stanbury says that the woodwork shop is not just a helping hand; it is a push for the students to make something of their lives. She says, "This place needs to exist, it shows kids that there is more to life."

Success not just measured by talent or skills

When it comes to students like Rhoads and Stanbury, Loszchuk says it doesn't matter whether they have a future in woodworking or not. The same goes for all the students who enter the doors of the shop.

Loszchuk says, "The number one thing is, is there a need?"

di-succes-chartSuccess, says Loszchuk, is seeing a positive change in the person. While the shop teaches students trade skills that will help them secure employment, the most important aspect of the program is that students gain self-confidence and a positive outlook on life, he says.

"It's so hard to get on that first step, it's such a high step, but here, we can plant them on that top step."

The shop has had some proud moments. They have recently been commissioned to do pieces for the new Telus World of Science as well as the Royal Tyrrell Museum, in Drumheller, Alta.

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