Alexandria Seaport Foundation: Building Boats, Changing Lives

ASF runs an apprentice program for at-risk young adults who have been referred by Alexandria City courts, probation officers, T.C. Williams High School, and word of mouth.

Apprentice Program Manager Jay Helsinki (right) instructs apprentices as they construct a 14-foot sailboat.

Alexandria, VA – It was a typical day at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation (ASF) boatbuilding workshop in Old Town, where the apprentices tended to their tasks at hand and sawdust floated in the air. A man came in and walked around, looking overwhelmed and filled with emotion. Someone approached him to ask, “Can we help you?” The man broke down in tears as he explained that he was a former apprentice, and he said the program saved his life. He’s now married, gainfully employed, and beyond grateful.

ASF Executive Director Kathy Seifert smiled as she told the story. She knows it well, as there are hundreds like it. Since 1993, ASF has run an apprentice program for at-risk young adults who have been referred by Alexandria City courts, probation officers, T.C. Williams High School, and word of mouth, sometimes through current and former apprentices. After a brief trial period, ASF’s curriculum focuses on work skills such as carpentry, math, and woodworking, and on life skills that include personal finance, resume writing, self-respect, and self-care.

The McIlhenny Seaport Center floats on the riverfront near Founders Park.

The path to success

Following an assessment of community needs conducted in 2018, Seifert made changes to better meet those needs. She raised funds, created a logo to reflect AFS’s new direction, and began assembling a new board of directors. Two years later, she has “an incredibly talented, passionate, engaged, and energetic” board taking the good work of the ASF further. For the first time in years, the program is filled to capacity and has a waiting list.

Evolving for success

As part of the new direction, ASF entry age was dropped from 18 to 16. “The assessment showed we were missing a big group of kids in need, ages 16 and 17, whom the courts were trying to keep out of prison,” said Seifert. These teens were spinning their wheels at school, dropping out after 10th grade, and entering the dangerous cycle of violence and incarceration.

One of ASF’s dedicated volunteers works with apprentices on refinishing a boat.

“When they get to ASF now,” Seifert said, “they start working, having fun, and feeling joy. You can see it on their faces, the clarity in their eyes. You see them realize, ‘Hey, a GED would be a good move. I could go to NOVA.’”

Many ASF apprentices do go on to NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College) and learn employable skills and trades. Some have gone on the University of Virginia. “They leave ASF with the personal skills to become productive, self-sufficient adults, with no need to rely on food stamps and handouts anymore,” explained Seifert.

An inspiring work environment

Apprentices work at the McIlhenny Seaport Center, a floating timber frame building next to Founders Park in Old Town. It’s a busy shop. Boats built here are used in the program (all apprentices learn to sail and row), others are auctioned, and some are built on commission. To expand the workspace, ASF has applied for a special use permit to construct a second facility.

ASF Board Chair Helen Morris volunteers her time to help apprentices study for their driver’s permit.

“It would sit on the waterfront next to our current location. It’s stunningly beautiful, with open doors and glass walls, so people can see boats being built; they can come in and meet the apprentices and the instructors,” said Seifert. “It will be a big benefit to the waterfront.”

Public hearing on the application was scheduled to take place in April, but due to the communitywide COVID-19 restrictions, the City Council schedule continues to undergo changes. The best place to follow this is on the City website. 

In preparation for the public hearing, whenever it occurs, Seifert has briefed council members on the proposal. “It costs $30,000 for an apprentice to go through the ASF program. It costs $120,000 to incarcerate that same young person. Sadly, incarceration often becomes cyclical. The apprenticeship program at ASF launches them into a productive life. This is a win-win for everyone,” she added.

Another win is ASF’s externship program. Apprentices close to graduation work part-time at nearby businesses, funded by ASF. Additionally, ASF enlists mentors to guide these apprentices on their journey to productive, self-sufficient adulthood.

The next steps

ASF’s pressing needs now are approval of the construction and a capital funding campaign. “We have fantastic community partners, such as JBG Smith Properties and Amazon, and we are pitching our cause to create corporate matching programs.”

Senior Apprentice Jimmy Quinteros teaches woodworking skills to a new apprentice.

Of course, donations of all kinds help and ASF has a recurring giving program where donors can commit to as little as $20 monthly. This not only saves money spent on soliciting donations, it’s also steady income on which they can plan. “I really enjoy taking the time to thank our donors,” said Seifert, “so I can express sincere gratitude on behalf of all of us here at ASF.”

Looking ahead, ASF plans to expand the externship and mentoring programs, two initiatives that directly influence apprentices in positive ways. Their major fundraising event, Wine on the Water, was planned for May 16, but has been postponed to a date to be determined.

ASF needs more people to become aware of their transformative work that takes place every day. “Lives are changed here,” says Seifert. “Visit our workshop on the Old Town waterfront and meet some of the young people being served in our program.” Visit the Alexandria Seaport Foundation website to learn more and to donate.

ICYMI: Kathleen Seifert Takes the Helm at Alexandria Seaport Foundation