Unique woodworking program for city youth struggles with pandemic: ‘We’re at a standstill’

Local News

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — One unique city program has been providing Rochester youth the opportunity to make friends and learn life skills since the ’60s – all while building things out of wood. It’s called St. Michaels Woodshop.

Executive Director of the program James Smith says the way teenagers make use of their free time is so important – it’s one of the reasons the shop plays a special role in teen’s lives after they finish a school day. Smith calls it a safe space.

“They can let their guard down, they don’t have to worry about being hurt or ridiculed, and we give them tools to focus and go out there and deal with some of those problems like peer group pressure, drugs, police contact, how to interact with members of our community in a positive way to where they don’t have to have a fear,” he said.

Along with that – even a little stipend. Something Smith says is not just an award, but a tool. “It’s as an incentive, to have the kids grow.” To earn the stipend teens just have to attend “life skill” classes, and build wood to contribute to their catalogue.

Now with the pandemic, the program is hitting some financial hurdles. For one, the entire program has gone virtual, making it impossible for teens to build wood to sell like they used to. Secondly, one of the biggest end-of-year sales also had to go completely virtual due to the pandemic.

“The numbers spiked, and we had to cancel the sale for safety reason. We didn’t want to put our customers and volunteers at risk.” While the woodshop has been closed, there’s still “life-skills” lessons offered through Zoom.

“Financially, we have to keep asking for money, writing grants in order to continue, it’s a constant worry,” said Janet Korn, board member and Sister of Mercy.

But there’s hope. The woodshop is even getting help from the Finger Lakes Woodturners Association – who have been donating their own pieces so the woodshop can sell them. Additionally, Smith has been using a special machine to print designs on wood to sell.

For now – organizers say all they can do is ride out the pandemic. And the teens definitely miss their safe space.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity for youth hope we can get back quickly,” said Korn.

“Only way that happen is if we stay safe, get numbers down back to normal,” said Smith. “We are on reserves right now, and we get constant emails and reminders of our budget slowly dwindling, I think right now we are at about six or seven months left. If things don’t change, not able to open up or fundraise it, could very well be the end.”

You can click here to see the catalogue for wood products the program is selling.

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