Juan Martinez loves working with his hands. Now, thanks to Brooklyn Woods, a Gowanus-based training program, he has the opportunity to make a living doing what he loves.
Brooklyn Woods is a branch of Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, a not-for-profit organization that helps jobless and working poor New Yorkers establish careers in sectors that offer competitive wages and advancement opportunities.
Established in 1999, Brooklyn Woods offers a seven-week intensive training course where students are taught box building and woodworking. The organization also runs a kitchen and bathroom cabinetry business.
As part of its mission, Brooklyn Woods teaches skilled woodworking at no cost to students. The organization is also directly involved in the placement of graduates in jobs that are in or related to the field.
At the Brooklyn Woods training facility and custom woodworking shop, students learn building basics, such as the use of hand tools and power tools and how to use standing woodworking machinery, as well as wood finishing. They also learn about wood technology, tree growth, the properties of wood versus man-made materials and all the tools, processes and techniques of cabinet making.
Director Scott Peltzer formed the precursor to Brooklyn Woods in 1999, when he was directing and teaching at another non-profit. He and the co-director of that organization merged with Brooklyn Workforce Innovations in 2007 to form what is now Brooklyn Woods.
Peltzer holds up a small cutting board, perfectly smooth and sanded down. It's one of the earlier exercises given during the course. Later, he said, the students will be given more intensive assignments, leading up to completing a kitchen cabinet set.
In addition to the training program, Peltzer and head instructor Chris Cavallaro run a social venture cabinet business, which mainly supplies affordable housing groups with cabinets. This 'for-profit' arm of the organization is also where many fresh Brooklyn Woods grads find their first gigs; last year, Brooklyn Woods produced 100 kitchens and 400 bathrooms vanities, and fifteen Brooklyn Woods grads were hired to work in-house before they were placed in jobs in the field.
Juan Martinez, a soon-to-be grad, has been at Brooklyn Woods almost two months, and is singing its praises.
"I'm going to miss this place. I've learned a lot," he said. "Great teachers here at Brooklyn Woods."
Martinez was already interested in woodworking, but hadn't been employed in the field since the 90s. He said Brooklyn Woods gave him the chance to resume what he loved doing, by teaching him ways to sharpen his skills.
"I was always good with my hands," said Martinez. "I wanted to continue it and to better my technique."
Brooklyn Woods is an instructional program, but offers much more, said Peltzer. Students form bonds with their instructors as well as each other, and an equal exchange takes place between teacher and student where both benefit, creating a socially uplifting experience as well as an educational one.
Cavallaro was at one time a custom furniture maker running his own business. He closed shop and joined Brooklyn Woods as a full-time instructor in 2004, in pursuit of a more personally gratifying as well as less time and labor intensive living.
"I sort of burned out, working 100 hours a week," he said. "I decided I just wanted to teach."
In partnership, Peltzer and Cavallaro run what can be thought of as a well-oiled machine. Brooklyn Woods regularly churns out skilled workers (as well as cabinets), with the forces behind it working together to integrate business and training.
Woodworking is an industry that has changed a lot, said employment coordinator Toby Gardner, and it's become a lot tougher to get a job. This is a field in which individuals can be trained and within weeks, she said, a low-income New Yorker can have a shot at making a good living.
"There is a real value in offering this training to people that really need it," said Gardner. "People that hire woodworkers hire them to build a custom kitchen. It tends to be driven more by a high-end market. So these low income people have a shot at making a really good living for themselves."
Brooklyn Woods exists as a portal to success for people who have had some sort of barrier to employment. By offering such specialized training at no cost, many of those workers not only get back to work, but earn a considerable wage, all while also regaining a sense of purpose, creating bonds with peers and gaining valuable life skills.
And this, Gardner says, is what brings him satisfaction at the end of the day. He likes going home knowing that in these tough economic times, he's not only helped carve out a special niche for job creation, but helped make those jobs accessible to people that need them the most.
"We offer phenomenal training that ideally will help people find jobs," he said. "I have made many, many placements, and it's really satisfying to know that, through our work here, we were a catalyst for personal change in their lives."