Way back in 2007 when Saint Martin de Porres Academy was getting ready to move to its current location on Columbus Avenue, we quickly realized our 100+ year-old “new” school building needed some attention. Providentially, friend of the Academy and very handy man Michael Dowley had been helping SMPA get ready to move into the new building. Mr. Dowley offered to give SMPA a year of full-time volunteer service. Twelve years later, he is still volunteering at SMPA, as a trustee on the Board, as a member of the Building Committee and as the leader of the Fix-it Club.
The Fix-it Club was born out of a double need: the need for more co-curricular activities for the students and the need to work on things around the school. “As you can imagine, there were a zillion things in the old school building that needed to be done and limited resources,” said Mr. Dowley.
A problem solver at heart, he thought back to when he was a child. “The best gift I ever got as a kid was a toolbox for my birthday in 8th grade. The sense that I got from it – that these were real tools that I could do some serious stuff with meant my parents had confidence in me that I could use those tools in a responsible and positive way.”
So Mr. Dowley recruited some SMPA students and launched the first assembly of the Fix-it Club. Together, they started tackling the long list of projects around the school.
Now the Fix-it Club is the go-to for project and repair requests from staff.
Mr. Dowley uses these requests as a way to teach the students valuable carpentry, business and life skills while keeping the school in good shape.
“We look at each request as a problem to solve and come up with different suggestions to go about it. What tools do we need? What materials? We talk to our “customers” (the staff) to make sure we understand what their end goal is. Then we come up with a solution and show it to the customer to get their feedback and approval.”
Presenting their ideas to their clients was often the most painful part of the process for the students who, “… put their heart and soul into developing these plans, only to hear the client say while they appreciate the rainbow design, they’d prefer solid green to blend in with the walls, or something along those lines.”
“But,” adds Mr. Dowley, “It’s a very important life lesson for them about understanding and delivering on what the client wants, not what you want.”
Mr. Dowley sees the Fix-it Club as a great opportunity for the students to learn some practical skills and take ownership of their school. “It is beneficial to the school and helps the students take pride in maintaining their school.”
The Fix-it Club tries to recycle and re-purpose as much as possible, figuring out the best way to use wood to minimize waste and re-using items saved in their basement workshop, but the students also enjoy the occasional trip to the hardware store to purchase materials.
In addition to gaining a familiarity with building terminology and learning to use tools safely and properly, the Fix-it Club teaches real life skills like accepting feedback and critiques, problem solving, creative thinking, follow through, patience, team work and with a little life advice along the way.
“The students gain immediate gratification from taking something that does not work and making it work,” said Mr. Dowley, “or walking past something every day and knowing they are the ones who spent some hours fixing it. There are so many things in the school that the kids can look at and say that they built that.”
At their 8th grade Baccalaureate ceremony, students who participated in the Fix-it Club for all four middle school years are presented with a special gift from Mr. Dowley – a toolbox of their own containing a starter set of tools.
“The most memorable kids are sometimes the ones who seemed the most reluctant at first. They might be a little afraid of the drill or can’t saw a straight line or hold the hammer really tentatively. But by 8th grade they are demonstrating the proper use of these tools to a younger student. It’s fun to hear the older students saying to a new student, ‘Don’t worry. You can do this!’ or ‘Here’s a little trick of the trade I want to share with you.’ You know the learning has taken root.”
“I hope the kids leave confident that even if you don’t know how to fix something, if you study it, and consider it, chances are you can figure it out. You can make your hands and your brain work together and solve it. I want them to think, “I can do this. I can do this.” It is really empowering. I hope it carries into the rest of their life.”