Building careers in the Downtown Eastside, one block of wood at a time

If you walk into a RONA store in the Lower Mainland, you can purchase planters, patio furniture, and wooden Christmas ornaments from an unexpected source: the Downtown Eastside. These products are manufactured in Vancouver’s poorest neighborhood  by the Tradeworks Training Society, a non-profit organization that provides inner-city women and youth with training in carpentry.

“We’re taking people dependent upon government programs [and turning them into] people who pay taxes,” explained executive director Maninder Dhaliwal.

While Tradeworks’ roots can be traced back to 1994, the non-profit began selling work produced by its students  in 2006. Between 2008 and  2010, it produced 11,000 wooden pieces – including  podiums and athletes benches – for the 2010 Winter Olympics, according to Kevin Cassidy, a carpentry instructor at Tradeworks.  

Presently, Tradeworks runs two social enterprises: Tradeworks Custom Products, which works with women in challenging circumstances, and Tradeworks FabShop, which works with at-risk youth that are 18 to 30 years old. Both programs provide training and hands-on carpentry experience to their students, whose studies are funded by an hourly stipend.  

Youth who come into the FabShop typically struggle with criminal records, drug and alcohol addictions, learning disabilities like ADD and fetal alcohol syndrome, and mental health issues. The single mothers among them may feel trapped in welfare programs, since taking a minimum wage job would make it difficult to support their families. Some of the students do not possess government IDs, social security numbers or bank accounts.  

They graduate with skills and certifications that enable them to begin working at a starting wage of $18/hour in a growing industry. According to WorkBC's Labour Market Outlook, the Trades are expected to be among the most highly demanded professions in BC between 2010 and 2020. 

“They can see a future for themselves [after the program]”, explained John Gatti, a RONA store manager who has hired Tradeworks graduates.

The students include young men like James (the name of this student has been changed to protect his anonymity), who started using drugs when he was 13. He was eventually kicked out of his home and spent  most of his teen years in the North Shore Youth Safe House. At 20, he has overcome his drug addiction, but has struggled to manage his time and begin a career.

“I can see the program making a difference in how I plan out my days, in being more responsible,” he said. The program is providing him with an opportunity to begin a career in the carpentry – something he would not have been able to afford on his own.

“Everyone who comes through our programs comes with baggage,” said Cassidy, who uses carpentry as a tool to boost his students' self-esteem and teach them life skills, including time management and financial literacy.

“The pride that the people feel, that ‘I’ve made something that’s useful, that’s being used by people’” plays an important role in increasing the students’ confidence, Dhaliwal explained. To illustrate the point, Dhaliwal shared a letter to the Tradeworks staff written by a former student named Ashley.

“At FabShop, I have done things I never thought I could do [...] like making things with my hands, using different saws and power tools, and it has taught me about myself,” she wrote.  “Now I feel confident that I can move past my criminal record and even become a teacher or a foreman.”

Tradeworks, whose clients include BC Housing, BC Hydro, RONA Canada and Vancity, is partly self-funded. Products made by the students generate about $500,000 in revenue each  year. The remainder of the organization’s $1.5 million tab is funded by the government.

Dhaliwal is working to make the organization self-sustainable and hopes to attract more corporate support.

“My theory is that there’s people right here, in the poorest postal code in Canada, that need help today,” said Dhaliwal, noting that corporate social responsibility initiatives often focus on poverty abroad. “I would like to see more corporate social responsibility dollars from big corporations flowing into programs like these.”

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