Flint youth program teaches trade skills while building character

A group of children are assisted by a man with putting together wood pieces to make a wishing well.
Participants of Active Boys in Christ build wishing wells and flower trellises at Jachin Baptist Church in Flint. Photo: Mike Naddeo

Starting a trade-based youth program was a personal matter for Pastor Derrick Watkins, who says he was exposed to harmful situations as a child. Noting that he “could have been a statistic, could have been one of the ones in prison, could have been murdered,” he credits skilled trades with giving him a sense of purpose.

Watkins wanted Flint’s kids to have the same opportunity he did, so in 2017 he started Active Boys in Christ. ABC aims to teach carpentry, plumbing, electric and culinary skills to Flint area boys and girls ages 7 through 17. Every Wednesday, they sit down for lessons on character traits like integrity and respectfulness. In this way, the kids mature and grow as the program advances, Watkins said.

“We really try to invest in our children and teach them that we’re taking our hands to build our community, not tear it down,” Watkins said.

A boy screws together two pieces of wood to make a ring of wood pieces with the assistance of an older man. Two boys watch intently.
Mark Lane practices his carpentry skills as he helps put together a wishing well during ABC’s summer program. Photo: Mike Naddeo

Mark Lane, a participant in ABC for the last two years, discovered his interest in trades through the program. He wants to be in law enforcement but is planning to get his start in the trade business. ABC introduced him to working with electrical circuits and drilling.

“When I first started ABC, I was really bad at using a drill. I didn’t even know how to keep it in the screw,” said Mark. “The volunteers showed me how to use it, and now I can drill really well.”

The guiding principle for ABC comes from a quote by Fredrick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” In this way, Watkins sees ABC as a program that can set up youth in a positive way.

“Our program is a sort of prevention to stop kids from going down a bad avenue and give them a pathway to success,” Watkins said.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted $50,000 in 2021 to support the ABC skilled trade program. Factory Two, a local nonprofit makerspace, also recently received a $12,143 grant through the Mott-funded Christopher Stallworth Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to allow ABC participants to join Factory Two and expand their skills. Funding and in-kind support from other local donors also help the program to serve more youth.

A sense of community is integral to the program. Last summer, participants had the opportunity to rehab a Flint house that was on the Genesee County Land Bank’s demolition list, and it’s now home for a local resident. The program acquired another home this summer for the youth to renovate.

Don Frisch, a volunteer and project coordinator said, “As they built the house back up and saw the final product of their work, they felt a sense of accomplishment and pride.

“We’re showing the kids that they can make a difference in their community and create a positive impact. It really enforces that change happens one person, one house, one community at a time,” Frisch added.

Two young boys wearing gloves, hairnets and aprons stand at a counter to mix ingredients in plastic cups.
Two Flint kids learn to make cinnamon rolls during ABC's summer program. Culinary lessons take place every Wednesday night during the four-week program. Photo: Mike Naddeo

Throughout the course of the program, participants learn and grow as people with the guidance of volunteers like Christine Watkins and the Frisch family: Don, Sharon and Cassie.

“There’s something about when the kids come in and they’re happy to see you, and they run up and give you a hug because they trust you,” Sharon Frisch said. “They know that you’re there for them. They know that you love them. You want to make a difference in their life.”

Mark loves ABC and would recommend it to all his friends. “Being here is awesome. You make a lot of friends, and you get to learn a lot of stuff. I would tell all my friends about this program.”

Derrick Watkins welcomes anyone who wishes to volunteer or get involved. To view ABC’s application forms, visit activeboysinchrist.org.