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With the Kids

Shaping more than woodcrafts

Kids learn life lessons, not just manual skills, in the Alternate Routes program.

August 26, 2004|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

Inside a converted transit bus with nearly 100,000 miles on it, 9-year-old Evan timidly hammers a nail into a small piece of wood. During two previous attempts, the nail bent, but 18 taps into his third try, there is promise of success.

Then this: "Oh, no. Not again." He looks up at the bus ceiling, toward the heavens.

At the workstation next to him, Javier, 10, has fashioned five pieces of wood into a couch the size of an ice cream sandwich. It started out as a car but ended up being a sofa. One of the pieces, serving as part of the backrest, swings around, hinged by a nail. In his imagination, it resembles a machine gun.

"We don't make guns on the bus," the teacher says.

She has him secure the piece with another nail. Later he makes a second attempt at building a vehicle and puts together a Ford F-150.

Way in back of the bus, Amber, 8, is making a pumpkin. A teacher once told her that each piece of wood should be sanded until it was as smooth as her cheeks. "She had very high standards," Amber says. She works steadily, periodically running her fingers over the grain.

Eventually, through persistence and 37 taps, a nail is driven without bending. A weapon becomes a couch. A piece of wood, through repetition and patience, becomes silky smooth.

The Alternate Routes mobile woodworking program provides instruction on the use of simple hand tools to children ages 5 to 11. The lessons learned, however, have more to do with life.

"The skills they learn doing this type of stuff, they can apply to lots of different aspects of their lives," says Jon Lapointe, who, with Otono Lujan, directs Side Street Projects, the nonprofit organization that conducts the program. "It gives kids a really good basis for thinking skills and spatial reasoning."

On Saturday, Side Street will unveil recent paint jobs, based on work by artists Gilbert "Magu" Lujan and Francisco Letelier, on the outside of their two buses. Free woodworking lessons will be given during the event.

Side Street, which is run by artists, was founded in 1992 by Karen Atkinson, an art professor at California Institute of the Arts, and her husband, Joe Luttrell, to support local artists. Alternate Routes, based on a program in San Diego, began in 1997.

The buses travel to schools, summer camps, community centers, youth organizations, after-school programs, even birthday parties. With 10 stations in each bus, instructors use woodworking as a template to encourage creativity and problem-solving skills.

"They're not allowed to abandon a project," says Emily Hopkins, program manager and instructor. "They can't give up. They have to work through it because then they become more confident when they're done."

Students are given as much time as needed to finish a project. After receiving instructions on how to use the tools, students choose their projects and work from models. If there is no model, they work from drawings they make themselves. The program is designed to encourage students to do their own thinking.

"We don't say, 'This is how you make something.' We say, 'This is how you use a screw.' Then they have to apply the skill to whatever they're working on," Hopkins says.

Students are taught to use handsaws, drills, planes, hammers and other tools that under other circumstances can spell disaster. With two teachers supervising each class, however, no one has suffered injury beyond a few minor scrapes and bruises, program officials say.

"If they come with 10 fingers," Lapointe says, "they leave with 10 fingers."

Plans call for more buses and programs.

"Our long-term plan is to have an entire fleet of different types of art-making buses," Lapointe says. "We started with woodworking, but we hope to someday have an entire parking lot full of mobile art-making studios."

In time, they may house their offices on buses and expand programs to include middle school and high school students.

"The beauty of having mobile programs is that we can bring the classroom to the kids instead of the other way around," Lapointe says. "All we really need is a parking lot."


Alternate Routes

What: Unveiling of newly painted exteriors of Side Street Projects buses, plus woodworking workshops.

Where: Armory Northwest, 284 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday

Info: (626) 577-7774 or Students must wear closed-toe shoes to participate in the free workshops.

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