PORTLAND, Ore. - While water lapped against the dock and sunlight danced on the waves, a young woman with big dreams put her arms up on a sailboat, closed her eyes and smiled.
This was the moment that 22-year-old Prairie Ducheneaux had been waiting for - the sailboat that she and four other students from Portland's Wind & Oar Boat School had built with their own hands was about to set sail for the first time. And they finished the project just in the nick of time.
"It was a mad dash, but that was the fun part," said Peter Crim, lead instructor and founder of Wind & Oar Boat School. "We were able to just hand off projects to the students and they could go to the shop and make whatever we had to make and then put it on the boat. It actually came together quickly over the last three weeks."
"I had to get that red stripe on," Ducheneaux said. "It was the last thing and I just had to do it. And I did it and it was kind of rewarding."
Dozens of people showed up at the Willamette Sailing Club on Saturday to share in the moment. Ducheneaux's instructor put her on the spot by asking her to tell the folks what she had learned.
You would never have known how nervous this young woman was - she appeared very sure of herself as she told the crowd "this has given me more confidence in wanting to fulfill what I want to do in my life."
Minutes later, the boat she had put so much work into the past few months was christened and launched into the Willamette River. The boat's sponsor, a local guy who wishes to remain anonymous, then took over the ropes. It was all bittersweet for Ducheneaux.
"I feel ecstatic," she said while standing on the dock watching the sponsor and a few of his friends work on getting the sail up. "But at the same time I feel sad because it's done."
To truly grasp what this sailboat has meant for Ducheneaux, you have to understand a few things.
The Wind & Oar Boat School she attended isn't just about building a boat - it's about giving at-risk youth the opportunity to build a future for themselves.
The school partners with local agencies to identify kids who might not be getting what they need out of a traditional school setting and might flourish if given the chance to do some hands-on learning. For the sailboat project, for example, the school partnered with Worksystems, Inc., a non-profit organization that channels government funds to programs like this.
Andrew McGough is the executive director for Worksystems, Inc., and he sees these types of partnerships as a win-win - not only do they give kids a chance to really flourish, but they also help send skilled workers into the job market.
"Over the next 10 years, we're going to need 30,000 new manufacturing workers," McGough said.
"It's going to take a village to solve some of these challenges and take advantage of the opportunities," he added. "That's really what it's about - positioning the region to be more competitive in areas that pay livable wages and offer really great jobs that let people support themselves and their families."
Peter Crim, lead instructor and founder of Wind & Oar Boat School, knows the kids he works with won't necessarily be heading into the job market to build boats, but that's not the goal. The goal is to send them out into the workforce with some valuable skills like problem solving, the ability to work as a team, math comprehension and feeling comfortable using a variety of shop tools.
"I think it just reinforces how important connecting kids to tangible things is and how it can impact their learning," McGough said.
For Ducheneaux, who has had a rocky road when it comes to her education, it made all the difference. If you would have asked her a few months ago what she wanted to do with her life, she might have looked away shyly and said "I don't know." But ask her today and she will look you in the eye and tell you with conviction "I want to be an engineer."
She wants to build things and the Wind & Oar Boat School taught her that if she can help build a sailboat, she can do anything she sets her mind to. The school gave her the courage and confidence she needed to pursue a dream.
Ducheneaux is now moving full steam ahead toward her goal. This month, she'll be getting her GED and then she'll be heading to Portland State University where the dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, Renjeng Su, is waiting for her. He's been watching her progress and was at Saturday's boat launch to cheer her on.
"Portland State's engineering school wants her," he said.
Ducheneaux said she's ready and you can see the excitement in her face when she talks about this new direction in her life. This reporter's advice for her? Put on your shades girl, because your future is bright.