By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
In the first week of his tenure as executive director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, Steve Mutty sat down with his fellow staff members and the program’s apprentices, looked out at the Potomac River and asked each person what it meant to them.
One said “peace” and another said “recreation,” among the many varied responses. Mutty said he told them he believes it represents opportunity, as the river both connects different regions and acts metaphorically as a route to a better life.
The theme of new opportunities resonates with the staff at Seaport, with several new faces joining the nonprofit in recent months. The foundation was founded in 1982 and has been focused on serving at-risk youth through apprenticeships and mentoring since 1993.
Mutty was appointed executive director in December 2015, while apprentice program lead Evan Waksler came on board in late January. The pair joined director of development Kathy Seifert and apprentice and community liaison Burgess Bradshaw as the four permanent staff members, and have great ambitions for the foundation’s future.
The foundation is headquartered at Thompson’s Alley on the waterfront, with apprentices working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day building boats, on other carpentry projects and honing my other skills like networking and computer literacy.
Currently, the foundation has capacity for eight apprentices, but Mutty said there should be plenty of room for growth as the waterfront redevelops in the coming years.
“We want to have a facility that has all the charm and character that this has, but has the capability to affect more young people,” he said. “That’ll be a long process, and through the good relationship we have with the City of Alexandria and a few other stakeholders on the waterfront, we hope that somewhere between now and the time the new waterfront of Alexandria is completed, we will have a much larger presence.”
Potential apprentices are identified from a variety of avenues, but no one is court-ordered to go through the program. Bradshaw said she works with a variety of community leaders, defense attorneys and prosecutors to determine who would benefit from the program and be prepared to contribute positively to society.
“Everything’s always evolving, and we’re just trying to do whatever we can to become better than we are,” Bradshaw said. “I’m always finding out when I’m meeting with community providers about their needs and are we meeting the needs that the community actually has and what can we do to improve our program to make sure we’re keeping up with the times to meet the client’s needs.”
In addition to the apprenticeship program, Seaport runs a middle school math program that is in place in both Alexandria public middle schools and one in Arlington. It uses carpentry projects to teach math skills, and has been in place since 2010. Mutty said that 98 percent of students enrolled in the program achieve higher test scores in math, while nearly 80 percent are graded at “A” or “B” or saw their grades increase by at least one full letter.
That program serves around 110 students per year, and Mutty said it is all part of the foundation’s mission to serve at-risk youth.
“What we know statistically is that in middle school, if they fall behind in math proficiency, it’s a slippery slope towards dropping out, gang involvement, crime, all kinds of nasty things,” Mutty said. “By helping them increase their math interest and proficiency, it’s proven that math proficiency builds self-confidence.”
That sense of building confidence also permeates the apprenticeship program, with staff seeing it as a good springboard for those who take part to gain other opportunities when they move on.
“The people that come through the program, they leave, even if they haven’t completed all four levels of the program, they already show more confidence in their abilities than when they came in,” said Waksler. “They’ve seen that they can make it through challenges and adversity. It shows them a new way.”
As for the apprentices currently in the program, they said it has turned things around for them and given them new skills that will serve them well in the future.
“[The seaport foundation has] gotten me out of the environment that I was trapping myself in, feeling bad for myself and not feeling like it was the same old routine,” said apprentice James Gottfried. “It was something brand new, something fresh and just surrounded with a network of people who were helping me succeed. I didn’t have as many connections where I was at the time.”
“Coming in maybe six months ago, I didn’t know a thing about woodworking or a thing about boats, and now I love woodworking and I’m looking into further jobs in boat building and it looks like we’re getting something lined up for the late spring, early summer,” said apprentice Christian Ferrante.
“I’m [like] a new guy, and there’s a whole new world of opportunities, interests that have opened up to me from a couple of months here that I didn’t even know existed.”