#GiveBIG for Youth Access

Neng with Youth

Neng (far right) and Blake Hansen with Job Skills Youth Interns in 2016.

This year’s GiveBIG is Wednesday, May 10th. With $8,000 in matching funds, your donation to CWB through GiveBIG on May 10th will make an even bigger impact. Don’t want to wait? You can schedule your gift now!

We asked former Job Skills Lead, Neng Thao, to share his CWB story. These are his words.

Wisconsin has over 15,000 lakes. And I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, surrounded by lakes: Lake Mendota has been called “the most studied lake in the world,” the biggest driving school is named “4 Lakes,” and so I should have been on lakes all the time.

But I never was.

For 18 years, I looked out at sailboats heeling in the wind, yearned to laugh like jet skiers, and cast my fishing line from beyond just the Wisconsin shores. But I never could because I never had access to any boats.

I never had resources to get on a boat, financially nor socially: I was born in a refugee camp, coming to Wisconsin after the Vietnam War. And so the stereotype that boats are only for wealthy folks seemed hopelessly true growing up in a community of working class immigrants.

But desperation drove me to try to change this. In college, with almost no experience, I decided to simply build a sailboat. I became obsessed and several hundred hours later, I was on the water…in a 13-foot wooden sailboat I didn’t know how to sail!

And yet I loved it so much I wanted to teach other people how to build boats they too would not know how to sail! So after college, I made another bold move: to take a break from the biology I had studied, move across the country, and work at The Center for Wooden Boats.

At CWB, I found the community I had been searching for. It didn’t matter who you were; you could get on a boat, get your hands on tools, and join a community with people from all walks of life. Managing CWB’s youth development programs allowed me to teach all sorts of kids. CWB helped me hire and teach over 20 youth interns who had never been on a boat before. And they saw that I too was learning, as I listened to experienced volunteers who had been with CWB for over thirty years. It is this community of collaboration that makes CWB so wonderful. It is a real, candid place. And that candidness was filled with real passion: something I’ve yet to find anywhere else.

In regards to a project I was working on, Founding Director, Dick Wagner, told me, “All kids will love it! The grown-up adult kids will love it too!” His words spoke true: whether it was teaching homeless youth how to hike out on a sailboat, experienced boaters how to caulk a wooden hull, or mentoring at-risk teens through their first job ever, boats really could be for anyone.

At CWB, I also modeled historic boats through 3D CAD, merging Seattle’s maritime history with its ever-growing tech future. And in parallel, taught people of all ages to do the same. Through this, I found out that, when on a boat, even the most experienced persons turn into kids, filled with the same sense of wonder and excitement I had when I first set foot on a boat. Dick’s words really were true: boats can be for anyone. Sometimes, it just takes a community to make that happen, one boat at a time.

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