Rosevelt Jones never imagined he’d ever have a job. He thought himself destined for a hard life on the streets of Oakland and in and out of jail.
That changed when Jones found Waterside Workshops about six years ago, a nonprofit that controls a few small businesses it uses to train and employ troubled Bay Area youth.
The organization gave Jones his first job.
“To be honest, I thought I would never have a job, staying on the streets, living the way I was living and doing the things I was doing as a teenager,” he said.
Aquatic Park is a brackish mix of rain runoff and tidal water that flows from the Bay through barnacle-encrusted tubes, smacked up against Interstate 80; the major traffic artery is all that separates the lagoon from the Bay. It is here that Waterside offers vocational training to mostly low-income kids who are on probation and struggling in school.
If the kids can stick with it, they can go from interning to becoming paid employees. At any given time, Waterside has 30 interns and about 15 who work more than 20 hours a week.
Amber Rich and Helder Parreira started Waterside in 2007 because they saw a lack of vocational training in today’s work force.
La Cheim School in Richmond, a private school providing education and mental health services for special-needs youth, agreed to let Waterside take some of their kids.
“It worked well even though these are supposed to be the worst kids, they have that reputation,” said Rich, the daughter of two blacksmiths.
It soon evolved into teaching kids job skills to better prepare them for adulthood. Seven years later, the place is still evolving.
“The kids tell us what direction to head,” said Parreira, because “it’s all for them anyways.”
Parreira, self-proclaimed captain of the shop, has been building boats for 10 years. He teaches the art of traditional wooden boat-building: no sealant, just wooden planks and cotton caulking.
“Once you learn how to build a boat, other stuff comes naturally.” said Parreira. “Building a boat gives you tools that can be used anywhere in life.”
Berkeley’s Boat Shop, one of three Waterside-run businesses, teaches kids how to build boats and on the weekends rents them to folks looking for a lazy day on the water. Youth teach first-timers how to row and steer the boats.
Waterside operates a bike shop called Street Level Cycles, which has an “open shop,” for the public. Anyone can come to repair their bike for free. Open shop draws a mix of people from the homeless, who live around the lagoon, to the well-to-do with expensive road bikes. Many of the youth teach in open shop.
William, a 16-year-old bike mechanic at Waterside, said that before this job he was doing drugs and heading down a troubled path. William spends an hour riding train and bus to get to West Berkeley from his adoptive home.
Working at Waterside keeps him from hanging with “the bad kids,” he said, while wrenching at a set of chrome handlebars.“It is the best job ever.”
Rich said that Waterside gives the public an opportunity to interact with urban kids of color. “They may find out that this big, scary kid is really nice,” Rich added.
In 2013, Waterside had a $315,000 budget, and about half the money is self-generated through craft classes, a café, and boat and bike shops, while the other half comes from a long list of donors. Waterside doesn’t take public funding.
Waterside leases the land from the government for “really cheap,” said Rich, but they were required to invest in the structures. Rich said the organization spent $260,000 fixing up the buildings.
Rich takes pride in the personal approach she and Parreira take with the youth. They make it clear they don’t represent the larger child welfare or probation systems. Rich said many social services get bogged down in red tape, preventing workers from developing healthy relationships with the youth.
“The personal approach is what makes the difference,” Rich said. “The kids can spot a faulty pretense a mile away.”
Rosevelt Jones was 16 when he first found himself at Waterside, and like many other young men in contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, his path to adulthood was hardly a straight line. Jones struggled to stay out of trouble, working on and off at Waterside for the last six years.
He was in and out of juvenile hall and group homes as a kid, and then as an adult got locked up in prison for two years. Rich spoke on the phone with him every week. Now 22, and just a few months out of prison, Jones is back working with Waterside again. This time he plans to stay out of trouble.
“This is a good place to be. They teach you how to stay out of trouble,” Jones said, who is soft-spoken and shy, with black dreadlocks and a mustache. “Everyone is very supportive.”
The organization is currently expanding its bike business, and two years ago added a café. Rich said Waterside is currently seeking capital funding to help renovate a third building in the park, which would allow for an expansion of the Open Shop, and to make the cafe concept a year-round employment option.
Brian Rinker is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a recent graduate from San Francisco State University’s journalism program.