These winter mornings on the waterfront might be freezing, but at least Kaleb doesn’t have far to go. The 22-year-old wakes up early in his basement apartment in Old Town, throws on his green Alexandria Seaport Foundation uniform, runs down to the waterfront and clocks in every day at 8 a.m.
“It’s hard to grasp for me, but I’ve changed my life around. I don’t do anything now,” Kaleb told ALXnow. “I just be chillin’.”
It wasn’t that long ago that things couldn’t get any worse. When he was 19, Kaleb had already been kicked out of two high schools and even his own house. He recalls spending part of that first homeless night on the curb in the rain outside of a Fredericksburg church until someone called the police on him. The church ended up getting him a hotel room for a couple of nights, and then he spent the next two years moving from shelter to shelter and couch surfing with old high school friends.
A little more than a year ago, Kaleb joined the Seaport Foundation as an apprentice and things slowly started to look up.
“I’ve grown as a person because I feel like I’m not as angry,” Kaleb said. “Angry in general, just because of life, just stuff that’s happened. So, it’s just like learning to let things go and just let things be.”
Since 1992, the Seaport Foundation has trained hundreds of 16-to-22-year-old at-risk youngsters to become experienced woodworkers, boat builders and carpenters. Kaleb, who likes to make music on his computer with his co-workers after hours, became part of a team of a dozen apprentices who spend up to two years learning carpentry and woodworking, personal finance and budgeting, resume writing and interviewing, and other life skills.
Apprentices also have to earn their high school equivalency and take outside coursework. They’re paid between $8-$12 an hour for working Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Last month, the foundation filed a special use permit with the city to build a second facility that would allow for more staff to work on-site. It would also double the number of apprenticeships. The foundation currently operates in the 1,200-square-foot McIlhenny Seaport Center (0 Thompson’s Alley), and was dealt a blow seven years ago when it lost its second location with the sale of Robinson Terminal South.
The city is looking at waterfront locations for the new, 1,740 square-foot facility, and a public hearing is expected before the Planning Commission in April.
“We’re doing this so that we can serve more kids and also have our whole staff on site,” said Seaport Foundation Executive Director Kathy Seifert. “I think it’s important to have all the staff, all the volunteers and everybody together.”
Former School Board member Helen Morris has been chair of the Seaport Foundation board for the last two years.
“Seaport can be a home, and can be that cocoon where kids can find out who they are and can have people who really believe in them. With every single one, somehow the system failed them,” Morris said. “The new location, it’s a beautiful kind of replica of what we already have… It has a big vaulted ceiling so that we will be able to do larger projects.”
A Second Chance
Brian, 19, just came back to the Seaport Foundation after being fired in September. Two years ago, he dropped out of T.C. Williams High School and was arrested for partying in a vacant apartment with his friends. He’s struggled with alcohol ever since. His probation officer told him about the apprentice program.
“I was an alcoholic for like a good year and still kind of am, but like it’s not to the extreme as it used to be,” he said. “Trust me. I was drinking like almost every week. I’d be going on a streak of just getting trashed and then going to sleep and then going to work the next day. And then there’s one time I just didn’t come in at all because, like, my phone died, and I got black-out drunk. So, there was no way I was gonna wake up on time. And that’s when they had enough and told me they had to let me go. But they always told me that there’s a chance I could come back.”
The price for readmission: Brian had to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I don’t mind going to them. I like listening to their stories,” he said. “They (the Seaport Foundation) really wanted me to come back. And then I separated myself from them for two months, and I felt like I was close to going back to the same routine as I was in high school. That went on for days, of me not really doing much. I was just floating by like a piece of wood on the river. So, I knew I needed to get my balance back. I was tired of not having money at all in my pocket.”
Seifert said Brian isn’t the same young man.
“There’s been an incredible change in him,” she said.
A Fresh Start
In September, after seven months as an apprentice, one of the organization’s board members, Sandy Davis, gave Kaleb an offer he couldn’t refuse — to move out of his two-bedroom apartment in the Mount Vernon area where he was living with seven other people and into a basement apartment in her townhouse in Old Town.
“When I first moved in, I was kind of anxious because it’s a new setting, you know,” Kaleb said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know how I feel about this.’ Old Town is kind of like… I work here, obviously, but living here is a whole other concept. It’s like an actual townhouse in Old Town.”
Davis also volunteers with the foundation, and said that there has been a marked change in Kaleb since moving in with her. He graduates from the program on March 2, and hopes to get a job at Potomac Riverboat Company.
“He has really calmed down,” Davis said. “He tried to be the center of attention for so long. He had a lot of nervous energy, but he seems much happier. He got a new girlfriend who works at Trader Joe’s and she’s really nice.”
The Seaport Foundation will hold its annual Wine on the Water fundraiser on Saturday, May 16, at 44 Canal Center. Information on the event will soon be released on its website.