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Build it Forward: More about ACE Mentor Program Houston’s Inspiring Annual Event [VIDEO]

Last month I stopped by Build it Forward, an annual fundraising event benefitting the ACE Mentor Program Houston.  As reported in a previous article, ACE Mentor Program is a non-profit organization with the goal of introducing high school students to the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering Industries.  Build it Forward is a one-day event where teams of students and volunteer professionals construct an item which is then given to Houston-area charities.  This year the teams constructed picnic tables.

Alan Coleman, project manager at Gilbane and Build it Forward lead, spoke with me as the students were enjoying lunch on the tables they had just built.  He explained that Build it Forward is part of the ACE Mentor Program in Houston, which is a program that works with high school kids to get them interested in Architecture, Construction Sciences, and Engineering; bringing them up through college; and then helping them find work in the industry afterwards.  Mentors who work in these fields volunteer their time to mentor the students throughout the program year, which usually runs from October through April.  During this time, groups of students and mentors work on a proposal for a real-world project such as a school.  “In our industry, an owner or a city authority might say ‘We need a school for this new community.  Figure out where it could be placed, and then design it.”  At the end of the year, the groups present their proposals to ACE board members and industry professionals, explaining where they would build the school, what its design would be, how long the construction would take, and how much it would cost.

The Build it Forward event is much more than a fundraiser.  It takes the kids out of the classroom and gives them some hands-on experience of looking at plans, working as a team, and building something from the materials.  Coleman said that about 160 people, including 80 students, participated in the event that day, and that some of the students “had never worked with tools before – never held a screwdriver, a drill, or anything like that.”  Together, the students and mentors built 20 picnic tables to be donated to local organizations in the Houston area.

Coleman said that Build it Forward is a great event in three important ways.  First, it is a great fundraiser.  All of the money raised for the event goes into scholarships for the students.  Second, the event is a good visual for the industry volunteers who participate: they get to engage with the community.  Finally, it is a great event for the students.  Coleman said: “It’s a great hands-on, out-of-the-classroom experience where they get to meet other students, other mentors, and people in the industry outside of just the class.  I am very proud to be able to do this – this is my second year running it.  Angela Cotie started the program six years ago, and she’s been the driving force all the way.  It has come a long way, and we are very happy with where it is.”

I asked Coleman about the students’ previous experience with handling tools.  He told me that some of them may have taken a shop class or other vocational class, but not all of them.  He said many of them come because they are interested in a career in the industry such as a landscape architect, or they want to do something with engineering.  They hear it is a good industry, perhaps from a relative who works in it, but they don’t know what it is like to do the job.  Coleman:

“So, we teach them how to do it, but then we also make them a little uncomfortable.  We put the tools in their hands, and we do it all with people watching them, mentoring them, and helping them so they are comfortable with it.  It is really neat to see the kids that started with a bunch of wood and scrap material, and now it is benches which they are able to use for lunch.  From the beginning of the day to the end of the day, there is a lot of growth and a lot of big smiles from the kids, which is really neat for us.”

Monica Worheide, Regional Director - Central of ACE Mentor Program of America, Inc., was also at the Build it Forward event.  She covers 16 ACE Mentor affiliates throughout the middle of the United States, from Minnesota to Texas, “supporting them in their efforts to run successful programs.”  Her involvement with ACE began in Des Moines, Iowa where she got the ACE Mentor Program involved with the schools in that area.  Her background is in interior design, and she previously worked with the Associated General Contractors of America.  I asked her if she had travelled to Houston ACE events in the past, and she replied, “I have, and this one is my favorite.”  Later, she added, “Houston is just an amazing program.”

Charlene Anthony, Senior Director of Construction Futures, Education Meetings, and Events at AGC Houston also took some time to speak with me.  She told me that the ACE Mentor Program Houston was established in 2008, which happened to be the year that Hurricane Ike devastated much of the area.  Because of Ike, that first year was a part-time, abbreviated session for the Houston ACE affiliate.  Even now that ACE Mentor Program Houston is well established, AGC Houston remains involved and supportive of the program, because the ACE endeavor to bring more people back into the construction industry aligns with AGC’s mission.  AGC helps raise money for ACE Mentor Houston through the annual AGC/AIA Golf Tournament.

Anthony is also the director of Leadership AGC, which she described as “an intensive, eight-module leadership program for entry- to mid-level construction professionals.”  Part of one of the modules requires the participants to take part in a community service project, so the 15 current participants of Leadership AGC were Team Leaders at Build it Forward this year.  She said it completes their community service requirement, and builds ties between the Leadership AGC participants and the ACE Mentor Program.

The event concluded after lunch, when all of the students were gathered inside the lobby of MAREK, the host location for the day.  The students were thanked for their efforts, and informed of the “eclectic” list of recipients of the 20 constructed picnic tables.  These are BARC Animal Shelter, Bethel Family Church, Boy Scouts of America, Boys and Girls Club of Houston, Covenant House (an organization which helps homeless youth), Friends for Life (another animal shelter), Generation One, GiGi’s Playhouse (an organization which supports those with Down Syndrome), Girl Scouts of America, Living Water, The Goddard School of Friendswood, Habitat for Horses, The Harriet & Joe Foster Family YMCA, Harris County Commissioners Parks Department, Inspiring Possibilities, Morning Glory Ranch, Nature Discovery Center, Project Row Houses (a community-based arts and culture non-profit organization), Ronald McDonald House, and AGC Student Chapter at the University of Houston.  After the students posed for a group photograph, everyone was dismissed for the day.

You can watch excerpts from my interviews in the 3½-minute video below.