By Anna Harris (Courtesy photo)
Until Juan Henriquez got locked up for six months, he dealt drugs, smoked weed and committed robberies. And he liked it.
Facing time behind bars, though, Henriquez decided to turn his life around. And the 19-year-old did it with assistance from the Alexandria Seaport Foundation.
The foundation, headquartered along the Potomac River, helps at-risk youth chart a new course by giving them practical, academic and life lessons with a hands-on approach. The apprentice program rests at the heart of the organization.
Most apprentice projects focus on building traditional dory boats, small but sturdy crafts native to the Potomac and used for catching oysters and crabs. By working alongside volunteer mentors, apprentices learn a variety of skills.
“It’s experiential hands-on learning using boats and boat use and the resources of the Potomac River,” said Mari Lou Livingood, executive director of the foundation. “It’s not just about construction trades. It’s life skills too.”
After hearing about the program from his parole officer, Henriquez became an apprentice in February 2012. He was there for less than a week before leaving to serve out his six-month jail sentence for dealing drugs.
Before departing, Henriquez told the foundation’s staff that he would be back. He made good on that promise in December and hasn’t left since.
“I thought I was doing good out on the streets,” he said. “I got locked up and saw that I couldn’t keep living that way. ... I was tired of getting in trouble. I’ve been getting in trouble since I was 13.”
Normally an apprenticeship lasts four to six months. But Henriquez has stayed longer to help as a senior apprentice while the program goes through a transition period.
Steve Hernandez, the program’s director, places apprentice graduates in jobs, though finding openings can be difficult because of the still-recovering economy and the skill level that employers often want in candidates.
Since Henriquez doesn’t want to go back to school, Hernandez found him a position as a carpenter building patios. If Henriquez likes it, he’ll continue and create more complex structures. He’d like to some day build a house for himself and the family he hopes to have.
Hernandez knows how Henriquez feels. In 1997, long before he was heading up the apprenticeship program, he was a part of it. Hernandez joined the Marine Corps after graduation and returned to the foundation as part of its carpenter unit, eventually working his way up the ladder.
“This place helped me launch myself in the right direction. ... It’s kind of a fairytale,” he said with a laugh.
At the moment, the seaport foundation is finishing up two 28-foot dories: the William Henry and the Monte Byers. They will replace the S.V. Potomac, an 18-year-old, 42-foot dory that sailed for the last time September 20. The organization will hold a formal decommissioning ceremony before sending the boat to the lumberyard, where it will be disassembled and reused.
The Monte Byers should be completed this month, possibly on the same day Henriquez graduates from the program. Though he doesn’t know exactly what is over the horizon, he’s confident about his newly plotted course.
“Before [the Alexandria Seaport Foundation], I never finished anything,” Henriquez said. “[The foundation] was the first time I’ve ever stuck with anything. It proves that I can do it. ... I was a completely different person before I came here. I’m actually going somewhere.”