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Men with troubled pasts use woodshop class to build better future

SEATTLE -- Recent shooting from Snohomish to King to Pierce Counties have many people looking for answers to stop gun violence.  For the past five years, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission has welcomed men from the street-life inside a wood shop called 118 Designs.  The idea is to give men who’ve been part of a criminal past, a chance to start over with a new tool to make a living.

There’s something therapeutic about this woodshop nestled in an old Fred Meyer warehouse.  It’s a chance for men with troubled pasts, like 44-year-old Jamel Payton, to start over.

“It’s a miracle for me to be standing right here; a miracle from God,” said 118 Designs participant Jamel Payton.

The ‘miracle’ is called 118 Designs.  It is a wood shop that opened in 2013 at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for men who are trying to change, a vision from the shop’s director Bobby Martin.

“We started really was to combat some of the violence that was happening in the south end of Seattle,” said 118 Designs Director Bobby Martin.

We’re still seeing that violence in the south sound with drive-by shootings, stabbings, and other crime-riddling the area.  For participants of 118 Designs, it is a reminder of how unforgiving the street life can be.

“I was addicted to the street life. I’m not gonna lie. I was part of the problem. A lot of things we read about in the newspaper,” said Payton.

When Jamel got out of prison a few months ago, he decided to do things differently this time.  So he applied for a coveted spot at 118.

“First off, I never thought I would be working with wood and then being a creator,” said Payton.

A lot of the wood used here at the wood shop is old, beat up and maybe should be thrown out. But a lot of the men see themselves in this wood if it can be refurbished and turned into something good. Then maybe they can be, too.

“It’s helped me to really see past what you think something is good for,” said Payton.

Not just the wood, but within themselves.

“Our men were getting to a place where our men are beginning to believe that they have the ability to do some pretty incredible things themselves,” said Martin.

“The metal plate, we put it down and secure it with the clamps and we’re like, boom. So perfect and you feel it and you’re like yeah I did that (laughs),” said 118 Designs Participant Najee Clark.

21-year-old Najee Clark and Jamel are building a table along with a close friendship.  Inside these walls, they’re bonded by wood, but on the outside they’re connected by criminal pasts.

“I committed two robberies and I committed an assault,” said Clark.

Jamel took Najee under his wings a few months ago.

“I had just been released from prison. I was serving a three-year sentence and I had just got out,” said Clark.

His first stop was 118 Designs to learn an honorable trade and get reliable work.

“See what I’m doing now {is} not what I did before.   That’s before.  That’s so many years ago. I can’t go back and re edit-or change anything. I can only work on what I’m doing now,” said Clark.

Jamel’s walk to redemption has been a lot longer than Najee’s.

“I’ve got about 17 years in county jails. I’ve been to prison six times. I’ve got two strikes. I’ve made a mess out of my life,” said Payton.

But now he’s learning the skills to rebuild his life.

“To really do what I’m doing and give it my all and get up every day to come to this is a challenge, but it’s always rewarding,” said Payton.

The men could make more in a few hours on the streets than they can in a week at 118 Designs. So the appeal of an honest life has to better than the appeal of fast money.  That’s why gang ties, street names, or any other labels are dropped once they enter 118.

“Whatever definition we’ve given ourselves about our name, we stay true to. some of the names given on the streets have negative connotations that come along with them.  So that’s why we stay away from using them,” said Martin.

Ultimately, 118 Designs isn’t just about these men or the furniture they’re building but reaching back into a community in the South Sound who is looking for role models, mentors, and influencers who can be a catalyst for change.

“If we connected with a group of young men who knew the neighborhood well and were able to get them to realize their influence in the neighborhood that we could affect change here,” said Martin.

So men with powerful influence like Jamel can change the course for the younger generation like Najee, inside and outside of the shop.

“When you feel a little bit better about yourself, it’s a little bit easier to reach out a hand to someone else,” said Payton.

The same hands used to tear down the community are now being used to build it back up.

To learn more about 118 Designs or to purchase furniture built by the men, go to http://www.ugm.org/118