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Tacoma Boat Builders

Building up youth By Rachel Kelly

Tacoma Boat Builders

Paul Birkey is a boatwright and business owner, and 10 years ago he was cleaning up after a community event. It was a day of pure fun. Teams were made, alliances were forged, and boats were scraped together out of various odds and ends. Then those boats were put to the test by taking them out on the water and racing them. He had loved watching the community come together. He loved how they supported each other. He thought to himself how beneficial it is to have people from various walks of life encourage each other, share ideas, and create something together. How empowering it is to have a team, to have people you know have your back. How much those around us contribute to shaping our character.

How building boats, an object of functional beauty, brings people together. Once Paul started thinking, he just couldn’t stop. That original conception would eventually become Tacoma Boat Builders.

Of course, there was a lot to do before Tacoma Boat Builders was to become what it is today—a unique one-on-one mentorship program tailored for marginalized and court-involved youth. So, Paul turned his natural gift for bringing people together to the benefit of the program. He began to surround himself with the right people to get the job done. To help him develop the program from idea to reality, Paul reached out to Judge Tom Larkin, a Pierce County Superior Court Justice, who had connections to youth. Judge Larkin provided the people and the support to allow Paul to begin to teach youth about boating and building boats. It wasn’t soon after that the Tacoma Boat Builders had their first fundraiser.

At first they were tentative to put out very many chairs. However, it soon became apparent that they would need to put them all out. The fundraiser was filled to the brim. Even after bringing out all the chairs, there were several people still standing. With community support, Tacoma Boat Builders raised $34,000 for youth that day.

From there the program grew. A website was put together, and the funding was poured into the program. Tacoma Boat Builders attracted a group of like-minded individuals from various walks of life. People like Dr. Shannon Shea, the executive director, who has the education and experience to bring in valued community partnership, direction, and a high-quality program. People like Chuck Graydon, who is the Tacoma Boat Builders Senior Program Facilitator (he is a boatwright and educator). There are youth advocates, social media consultants, Americorps members, shop hands, and an operations manager. Everything was coming together and growing beyond what Paul and Judge Larkin could have ever done on their own.

It turns out that the founding of Tacoma Boat Builders is exactly what the Pierce County Juvenile Court System needed; an alternative to incarceration. Not only is incarceration of youth ineffective, but it comes at a high cost to the community both monetarily and socially. Especially for the families and youth caught up in the system. According to Tacoma Boat Builders, “Research shows that community-based intervention and support are more effective in reaching better outcomes, including positive changes in behavior, completion of education, and reduced violence.” In other words, it’s not too late for our youth. They haven’t reached their end; they haven’t even finished developing. Before incarceration there are other options, better ones. Tacoma Boat Builders is one such community intervention that builds and invests, literally and figuratively.

As the court system and community continues to change its approach to incarcerating youth, Tacoma Boat Builders has continued to evolve. Now they are not just an alternative to incarceration but are a part of a larger effort to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Today Tacoma Boat Builders has 15 mentors, has served over 850 youth, and volunteers put in 5,552 hours in 2021. It has developed into a program where craftsmanship is the conduit that mentors use to create positive relationships, develop life skills and create confidence. “The program gives youth the experience of working with a mentor that will not let them down. A person who will show them what it’s like to trust someone, and to learn that they can trust other people too. Not just us,” says Paul.

Tacoma Boat Builders shows youth that it’s not just them against the world. The program has grown beyond Paul’s original concept, but he is still very much involved. He works alongside the young people as a volunteer mentor-craftsman every week. He most recently helped a young man build a skateboard. A skateboard is obviously not a boat. However, by building a skateboard Paul met the youth where they were at. Which is just one of the many ways that Tacoma Boat Builders sees each youth individually, going beyond building boats. Tacoma Boat Builders are enriching lives, building positive foundations for successful futures (along with solid builds), and encouraging positive change.

As this year's boating and fishing season begins, we will once again come together as a community to support each other. We will celebrate the history of the fisherman, a history that goes back to the original Salish and Puyallup people. We will wave goodbye to our friends as they get into their boats for the fishing season. We celebrate and we relish in the time that we have with each other and look forward to the time that we will be together again. We will dwell on our rich history of inclusion and support. We will remember that we know what it’s like to build from the ground up; we understand that nothing can be done alone. This kind of community support is just like Tacoma—that lives up to its name as the city of “destiny.” The place where the community supports its people to live with a future and a purpose.

For more information on Tacoma Boat Builders, as well as how you can get involved, please see them online at

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