How to Build a Life

Jimmy Pierce, the founder of Kids Making It, and Austin Wilson, one of his star woodworkers, talk about the journey from Castle Street to This Old House

By Dana Sachs

One day last summer, 18-year-old Austin Wilson stood in the basement of a 19th-century house in Newton, Massachusetts, pondering an HVAC system that he had to remove from the premises. Austin was an intern on the crew renovating the home, and the supervisor had asked the interns to haul the entire HVAC out of the building. But how could they get it out?

Oh, and a camera crew was filming the renovation for the PBS television show This Old House.

The story of how Austin, a 2017 graduate of New Hanover High School, ended up on This Old House is not just the story of one young man’s passion for building. It is also the story of how a small Wilmington nonprofit — Kids Making It — gave Austin the skills he needed to join the team of the PBS show. And it is the story of how Jimmy Pierce, the founder of Kids Making It, decided that when children have a passion, they can grow up to become “incredibly successful in life.”

Back in 1996, Kids Making It, or KMI, first offered woodworking classes to children as a pilot project through the Wilmington Housing Authority. Jimmy, a practicing attorney at the time, started the program after asking himself a basic question: “What would I do in life if I could do anything?”

“Woodworking” was his answer. He loved carpentry because “you go into a zone and time melts away.” But Jimmy also craved deeper satisfaction, so he decided to teach these skills to children, who could learn it as “an equal-opportunity enjoyment.”

Jimmy, Austin and I are sitting at a table at Jamaica’s Comfort Zone. Over lunch, Jimmy explains that KMI began as a one-week after-school program for students who “came from families that struggled one way or another.” KMI gave kids a chance to use hammers and saws, nail wood together, even build go-carts. The students loved it, but the housing authority staff had reservations because the project offered very limited hours. “You have to keep coming back,” they suggested. “If all these kids get is 12 hours over six weeks, you’ll just be another do-gooder coming in — a fond distant memory for them.”

Jimmy took that advice to heart. In 1996, he left the practice of law and by 2000 was able to establish KMI as a permanent program. He now tells kids, “You can stay forever.” Over the past 18 years, KMI has graduated thousands of students from its workshops. Some have entered building professions and trades, while others have gone on to community college and university.

Austin Wilson first walked into KMI’s shop on Water Street back in 2011, when he was 12. Jimmy immediately noticed his potential. “He was one of those kids you didn’t have to worry about.” On one project, Austin built a wooden wall-mounted shelf entirely out of hexagon shapes. “It would have been a lot easier,” Jimmy says, “to have made it out of rectangles. Instead, he spent five times as long.”

Jimmy pulls out his phone and, heads together, he and Austin scroll through photos until they find one of Austin with his hexagonal shelf. It is geometric perfection — sturdy and stylish at the same time. “He sets challenges for himself that are not easy at all,” Jimmy says, staring at the photo. “Not easy at all.” When This Old House announced its internship program, Jimmy thought of Austin.

As it happened, Austin loved the show already. “It was so cool to see (a house) one way in the beginning,” he tells me. “Then the renovations. How it changed was a whole other picture.”

But being on the program himself? The novice woodworker had to check with his mom, Tracy-ann. She had always taught him to work hard — “She’s never been one to give up,” he tells me — but applying for This Old House was something entirely new for both of them. Austin had never left home, lived by himself, or flown on an airplane. The internship would require him to live far away for a whole summer.

“Let’s just ask her,” Jimmy suggested.

Tracy-ann did not respond with enthusiasm, but she did let him apply. And when the television producers chose her son out of hundreds of applicants, she packed him up, drove him to the airport, and kissed him goodbye. For Austin, her support means everything. “I wouldn’t be where I am without my mom,” he says.

Tracy-ann is half Jamaican, and our meal at Jamaica’s Comfort Zone reminds Austin of his grandmother’s cooking. The menu reflects Jamaica’s history as a cultural crossroads, and popular items include indigenous stews, West Indian curries, and dishes cooked with spices that originated in Mexico and South America. The coconut shrimp combines tropical flavor with the crunch of flash-fried Chinese seafood, the fish’s mild sweetness playing off the rush of honey mustard sauce (“I’d like to try these at home,” Austin says). The vegetable patties, as savory as Indian samosas, remind Jimmy, a North Carolina native, of “one of my all-time favorite comfort foods — this is pot pie with a kick and a great flaky crust.”

Roti, a delicate flatbread from Trinidad and Tobago, becomes, in Jamaican cooking, the outer shell of a hearty wrap. We try the vegetarian version, which is stuffed with “rice ’n peas” (a mix of rice, kidney beans and coconut milk), cooked cabbage and callaloo, a stewed leafy vegetable. Topped with crushed garbanzo beans and served with jerk sauce, the dish has satisfying heft and a mellow tang.

In Massachusetts, Austin had to cook for himself and work long hours on the contracting crew. “We were framing and flooring,” he says. “We even had to put the roof up, and shingles.” The renovation supervisor encouraged the interns to plan before starting any project. “It’s not always going to turn out exactly as you planned,” Austin says. “But it’s going to turn out better than if you didn’t plan it.”

So, I ask, how did the interns extricate that HVAC unit from the basement of the house?

It’s Jimmy who responds first. “Wasn’t that one of those ‘planning’ times?” he asks gently.

Austin turns to his mentor and grins. “Yeah,” he says, then goes on to describe how the interns “figured it out together,” dismantling the entire system, then hauling the pieces outside.

These days, Austin is studying construction management at Cape Fear Community College, and as he speaks I can see the pride he takes in his accomplishments. But that’s nothing compared to the expression on the face of Jimmy Pierce.

He’s glowing.

Jamaica’s Comfort Zone is located at 417 South College Road, No. 24. For more information, call (910) 399-2867 or visit www.jamaicascomfortzone.net. Kids Making It, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, has its woodworking shop at 617 Castle St. You can also find it on the web at kidsmakingit.org.

Dana Sachs’s latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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