Challenge Program helps young offenders re-enter society

One of the most intractable problems across the country is how to help young offenders re-enter society, and do so with marketable skills. A Delaware nonprofit has been addressing that challenge head-on for more than two decades.

Launched in 1992 as the Challenge of Fort Christina, a boatbuilding program adjoining the Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard on Wilmington’s East Side, the Challenge Program took its current name three years later. Over time, it has built itself into a respected organization, giving young men and women with troubled pasts a second chance for an education and a path toward full-time employment in the construction industry.

Challenge has become a welcoming and saving destination for those who might otherwise be down and out, drawing more than 200 applications for the 24 to 30 openings in its six-month training program each year.

Most participants learn about the program through word of mouth, Executive Director Andrew McKnight says. “If you’re 18 or 19, have no high school diploma, no driver’s license, and a criminal record, you’re not employable, and you’re probably not ready to work. We’re the only option.”

The program runs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. from Monday through Thursday and the training has two components: learning about the construction trades and preparing to take the exam for a high school equivalency diploma. In addition, a social worker helps participants secure a driver’s license and offers advice on how to get and hold a job.

More importantly, through contracts with other nonprofits, like Habitat for Humanity, and agencies like the New Castle County government, Challenge participants are building and rehabbing houses and working on other projects that have a lasting impact in the community.

While many of Challenge’s projects are in the Wilmington area, the group has also taken on projects in Philadelphia and other cities. Delaware’s small size gives Challenge access to organizations that can use its services, and the program’s Wilmington location makes it easy to secure contracts in Philadelphia and beyond, McKnight says.

Three years ago, the program spun off a side enterprise, CP Furniture, which employs Challenge graduates to build custom desks, tables, seating and storage pieces. Clients include the CSC corporate headquarters, Grain Craft Bar and Taverna restaurants in Newark, the new Stitch House Brewery in Wilmington, and The Mill co-working space in Wilmington.

The Challenge Program runs on a budget of about $1.2 million a year, with about half of its revenue coming from its construction projects, and one-third from a job-training contract through the state Department of Labor. Other income sources include community development block grants from the City of Wilmington, smaller state contracts and Community Reinvestment Act funding from several banks.

The program can’t claim a 100 percent success rate, but there are more successes than failures.

“A girl who just graduated got into the Ironworkers’ union. A lot of grads work as forklift operators,” McKnight says. “And some, when they finish, still aren’t ready to work a 40-hour week. That’s just the population we deal with.”

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