Skip to content

Community Mentorship Sets Sail with Wisconsin’s Hands On Deck

by Kate Mothes

Two young children rowing a small boat on a river with an elderly person. They are all wearing life vests and there's another boat visible in the background.
Photo Credit: Hands On Deck
Hands On Deck hosts free community rowing every Wednesday through the summer. A typical evening row will last an hour and cover around 3 miles either up the Fox and back or out into the Bay.

The non-profit organization is keeping traditional craft afloat through community boatbuilding in Green Bay.

Perched on the shores of Green Bay, Wisconsin, right before the waterway slices through the city’s downtown and becomes the Fox River—sits the workshop of Hands On Deck. A non-profit organization dedicated to hands-on learning for youth and families through wooden boatbuilding, they emphasize traditional craft as a means to forge opportunities and build relationships within the community. 

Hands On Deck began when current vice president Mark Hawkins and a small founding board recognized a need for hands-on education in the area, especially with an emphasis on back-to-basics vocational skills. The bayshore workshop is often the first place where young learners interact with basic tools. “We meet kids who’ve never held a screwdriver, never helped their parents build anything,” Hawkins says. 

“We build relationships, and we build leaders. We’re asking, how do you attach these hands to your head, to your heart?”

A group of children of varying ages huddle around an in-progress small boat during a boat building class. There's an adult supervising them, while others stand around and observe the process.
Photo Credit: Hands On Deck
The Community Boat Building events are hosted every Monday evening, and both youth and adults are welcome to attend. Projects vary from week to week, from boat building and restoration, to building a sailing surfboard.
A young child of light skin tone holds a pencil and marks numbers on a flat wooden ruler-like stick. They are wearing blue-rimmed glasses and a navy blue long-sleeve sweatshirt.
Photo Credit: Hands On Deck
Fast becoming one of the organization’s most popular programs, Elementary Mechanical Skills, is a semester-long course offered to 6- to 11-year-olds.

Moving Mentorship to the Fore 

“Public education is in a real strain,” Hawkins says. “Teachers are quitting, classes are full, there are 40 kids in a middle school shop class not getting enough attention… We’re like the special forces. We tell the teachers, if they notice someone who’s really interested or is especially skilled, send them to us!” A dozen committed volunteers also dedicate around 100 hours each month to helping out. Hawkins adds, We build relationships, and we build leaders. We’re asking, how do you attach these hands to your head, to your heart?” 

Fast becoming one of the organization’s most popular programs, Elementary Mechanical Skills, or EMS, offers 6- to 11-year-olds the opportunity to use and make their own tools for the first time, including learning how to create and work from patterns. Since 2016, the initiative has provided workshops, classes, and apprenticeships focused on critical thinking and cooperation. 

“I don’t give them a ruler,” Hawkins says. “I give them a 12-inch piece of maple, and then they make their own ruler. We do a lot of estimating, and while I could pull out a tape measure, that’s not really teaching critical thinking.” Community request projects, such as building a bench for a local homeless shelter, provide realistic solutions while teaching budding craftspeople practical skills. “One of our core values—and a personal value—is that relationships are built when you do difficult things together as a team. That’s when you empower and build bonds together.”

Sailing Through Great Lakes History 

Great Lakes marine heritage also plays a crucial role in the types of projects Hands On Deck takes on, tying participants to regional history. So far, they have cooperatively built or restored more than 200 feet of wooden boats and are currently restoring a 1949 Lyman Islander.

The mid-century watercraft was made by a manufacturer originally based in Ohio that produced clinker-built or lapstrake boats, in which the edges of the hull planks overlap each other—perfect for cruising the lakes! “We love Great Lakes boats,” Hawkins says. “We have been a part of many Great Lakes boats, and we love that history.” 

A small room on the third floor of Brown County Central Library was the locus for the first boat Hands On Deck constructed in 2016, with the help of more than 20 individuals attending class once per week. Monday night community boatbuilding remains a core facet of the program, plus weekly rowing opportunities in the summer, CPR classes on Tuesdays, family boat rides, and special workshops with well-known artists and craftspeople from around the country. Hawkins says, “It’s not really a makerspace, but it’s community enrichment.”