Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert
Teenagers recruited by the Chinese American Planning Council worked on the Lilac, a lighthouse tender, over the summer. They celebrated with a party last week on the vessel.
Teens spend the summer with an elderly ship
By Sisi Wei
As the tides gently rocked the boat left and right, teens devoid of their normal uniform of respirators, goggles, gloves, and hair caps gazed at the makeshift screen in front of them, a piece of white cloth clipped onto the wall. The walls to the cabin were covered with a fresh coat of white paint, parts of which had yet to dry.
Within a few minutes, the teens were comparing pictures of themselves to pictures of the Lilac’s old crew. The vessel, which began service in 1933, is the oldest surviving lighthouse tender commissioned by the United States Lighthouse Service and the last survivor of its class. The slideshow, put on as a going-away party to celebrate the teens’ seven weeks of hard work, highlighted a vessel much closer to restoration. The 24 teens in the room had worked seven-hour days four days a week since July 2 to help renovate the vessel and often traveled an hour or more to get to work on Pier 40.
“If I was 14 years old I’d say ‘Go to hell’ and be outta here for the work that I’ve asked them to do,” said Charlie Ritchie, executive director of the Lilac Preservation Project.
For second year in a row, Ritchie worked with the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project, the Chinese Planning Council and the city’s Dept. of Youth and Community Development to give teens the opportunity to learn and work on the Lilac while earning minimum wage, $7.15 an hour. As the C.P.C. recruited the teens at their summer job fair, the Dept. of Youth wrote their paychecks.
“Did they know what they were getting into?” said Ritchie. “At least the second day they did.”
Baiyang Wei, 18, signed up for the Lilac because “it was different” from the variety of other jobs offered at the C.P.C. job fair, which provided opportunities for jobs in locations such as hospitals and nursing homes. Other teens chimed in with agreement.
And the Lilac certainly offered a different learning experience teaching the teens how to use power tools such as a wire wheel and needle gun to chip and remove paint.
“You have to concentrate on what you’re doing or you die,” Wei said while laughing.
“I almost lost my thumb,” said Binbin Zheng, 15, as he stuck up his thumb and smiled. The Chinatown resident accidentally hit his thumb with a chipping hammer and “it hurt for days.”
Teens also sanded ceilings and walls, removed wood and applied new paint to many parts of the ship often for hours under the sun.
“One thing you can’t see here is heat,” Ritchie said, referring to the slideshow photos. “[And] I’m sure I turned some kids who were really neurotic about being neat and clean used to getting their hands dirty.”
“[But] most of us find work more enjoyable than stressful so we don’t mind coming here every day,” said Anderson Wong, a Brooklyn teen who volunteered at the boat for the last three weeks.
“[Andi] makes it sound so easy,” said 16-year-old Jesse Ng, a teen employee, who said some parts of the ship, such as the wheelhouse, took all seven weeks to clean and paint. Ng enjoyed the work, she said, and the amount of money she earned while doing it was no big incentive. Other teens interviewed also said the money really wasn’t a big deal.
For Ritchie, working with these teens was hardly a challenge.
“I like the kids I really do,” he said. “They have shown real sincerity. I like the fact that they don’t mind being together. They’ll do anything if they can be together.”
Oftentimes, Ritchie said he would hear more complaints about who was working together than how hard the work actually was.
Ritchie also tried to incorporate more cultural and learning field trips. Though the group only managed to make one trip this summer to the Sailor’s Snug Harbor Noble Maritime Museum in Staten Island Ritchie hopes to add a few more sites to next year’s agenda.
“I really think for kids to get a well-rounded experience they need to explore things,” he said.
The amount of work Lilac still needs, however, is far from being done. As the teens get ready to leave and return to school, Ritchie is at a familiar loss for enough volunteers.
“If I had another six to eight months with these kids, they could paint the entire deck,” he said. “Volunteering for a thing like this is pretty unique. So it’s hard to attract people.”