By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – On a brisk Sunday morning in various corners as well as the yard of the Quonset Air Museum, eight teenagers are enthusiastically polishing, cleaning, sanding and painting pieces of history.
Working with the museum’s older members who serve as mentors – sharing technical information and personal knowledge – the youngsters spend five hours every weekend contributing a high level of energy to normally drawn-out projects.
“We’ve really made a lot of progress since they’ve been coming,” says Dave Payne, the museum’s executive director. He notes that before the infusion of vigor, a typical undertaking of the museum’s weekend warriors, such as restoring a Blue Angel “took two years.”
Over the course of nine weeks, these members of the East Greenwich-based Youth to Youth movement have accumulated more than 300 hours of community service.
Rob Lindberg, of Warwick, the group’s adult advisor, says of the national program, “It promotes leadership, anti-drug abuse and teamwork.” The program, focusing on junior and senior high students ages 13-18 was brought to East Greenwich 30 years ago by Bob Houghtaling, the town’s substance abuse prevention coordinator.
Lindberg notes that he was a member of Youth to Youth as a student at EGHS.
On a tour of the yard, he points to huge containers filled with scrap metal which has been removed from abandoned aircraft too damaged for repair. Containers of parts salvaged from these planes fill other receptacles, waiting to be used on aircraft overhauls.
“They take big pieces of engines apart,” Lindberg explains. He says one adult and one teen labored 300 hours to disassemble a 15-20-foot-tall engine. Nearby, Michael Guilfoyle and Joe Harrison are working on the last remnants of that job, removing what look like a million bolts from a jet training engine. Michael says “My sister got me interested” in Youth to Youth. He adds proudly, “I sanded and painted one of the A-4s. The history here is really neat.”
Joe says, “Rob got me started.” Grinning, he confesses, “I like taking things apart.”
The air museum project comes with side benefits.
“Working with tools is a learning experience,” Lindberg asserts. “Some are mechanically inclined, some not.” As the teens rotate through the museum activities they acquire skills that prepare them for the next assignment. “Everybody’s a volunteer” who appreciates the challenge of helping bring the vintage fighter planes and helicopters back to life.
He says there are various motives for joining. Some want to be part of an entity that promotes community involvement and social interaction in a safe environment; others participate to improve their chances of getting into college.
An important factor in the organization’s success, he adds, is that “parents trust the organization” with their children’s wellbeing.
Bri Burche, whose family recently moved here from Washington, D.C., has been working on a 3/4-scale Hellcat which she and another girl have named. Bri, whose father served in the military, finds the museum’s whole atmosphere “cool” and relishes her responsibilities caring for the Hellcat.
“I clean it and check inside for chips and breaks.” She says she joined Youth to Youth to make new friends and was pleased to discover that girls compose fully half of the membership; five are involved at the air museum. Bri has already chalked up an unforgettable moment: The first time she tried to climb up into the aircraft, she got her foot stuck.
A notorious tease, Payne frequently warns, “Remember what happened last time, kiddo.”
Although the teens have been assigned four specific aircraft, Lindberg says they “help with all of them doing general maintenance. The kids have responsibility for everything. They get asked to come and work for an hour” on particular projects.
When it becomes too cold to labor outside or in the drafty hangar this winter, the group will prepare educational handouts for elementary students and are also undertaking a huge endeavor: They’re building a 1/72nd scale model of the aircraft carrier Nimitz whose plans are already laid out in the warmth of the “ready room.” It will feature a landing strip, an LED light system and a catapult which will allow it to be suspended from the ceiling and operated in a way that simulates take-offs and landings.
“These are good kids,” says Payne. “I’m very proud of them.”
Bob Houghtaling declares, “Youth to Youth is a wonderful thing. The kids are giving back a lot to the community. The group mentors here have so much wisdom to impart and the kids are like battery chargers for them. We live in a culture that’s all about drugs and bad things. I work with kids who do good things all the time.”