One man's dream of boat-building helps others change their lives

After teaching a 12-year-old boy to build a canoe three years ago, Ray Klebba of White Salmon, Wash. (pop. 2,062) realized that the result was much more than a new canoe.

"He was from a single-parent family," says Mr. Klebba. "His mother asked if I could help him build a canoe to give him some direction and self-confidence."

It did just that – and three years later, the once-troubled youth is an exemplary student.

"I was home-schooling, and my mom wanted me to do a project," explains Daniel Hankin. "I was 12 when I built the canoe. It's an awesome thing to do; you learn a lot about woodwork."

The confidence and practical skills Daniel gained from the experience have stayed with him. He's currently applying what he learned at a summer construction job building wooden decks.

Ray Klebba's White Salmon Boat Works is a modest venture, a place where people come together to build their own wooden canoes, kayaks, and rowboats. In the four years since it opened, the small workshop has become a community attraction and gathering spot.

Daniel's mom, Julie, has high praise for Klebba and his boat works. "Ray helped turn Daniel around and gave him a lot of self-esteem," she says.

"Ray became his mentor and his friend," she adds. "I don't think Ray knows his power, his impact on people's lives. He says it's no big deal, but it is a big deal when it turns somebody around."

After the project, Daniel – whose mom had turned to home-schooling after he'd had problems in school – tested above average at school and was asked to help teach members of a high school class how to build their first boat.

Daniel's success delights Klebba, especially since the boat-building business that contributed to it began unintentionally.

"I was looking for a place to build a canoe," says Klebba, a former newspaper pressman from Minneapolis. He had built wooden boats before only as a hobby.

"I rented a building that had a lot of windows in front, and people would come in out of curiosity. Eventually, I had so many people coming in asking if I'd show them how to build a boat, and I kept saying yes, that I had to start charging for materials."

The wood-strip boats, so named for the fine strips of cedar, redwood, mahogany, and other contrasting woods used in their construction, are finished with a heavy-gloss lacquer that enhances their striking goodlooks.

"I call my business Dreamboats because many people dream of building a boat," says Klebba.

Today, he has a waiting list of people who want to build the particular boat of their dreams. But Klebba still makes time to help young people.

"The local high school's special-ed program places disadvantaged youths with me," says Klebba, who hopes to help other children find something good in their lives before they get into serious trouble.

Special-education teacher Kathy Hammon works at the local Columbia High School. She says: "Ray was very willing to work with us. He's a good member of the community.

"Many of our students have a hard time keeping a job because they lack social and work-related skills. Ray made sure it was a positive experience."

Klebba's reputation quickly traveled as far north as the Yakama Indian nation, which also enlisted his skills.

"A youth instructor wanted a group of kids to build a canoe," Klebba mentions. "Historically, I believe they had cedar dugouts, but we picked a classical Indian canoe."

Word also spread west to the suburbs of Portland, Ore. "I've had people from as far away as Sandy and Scappoose," says Klebba.

A family affair

Dreamers of all kinds have built canoes and kayaks under Klebba's guidance. "I've had people aged 12 to 70," he says, "including father-son and mother-daughter teams, and all skill levels."

This summer, boat-building is a family affair for young teen Michael Germeraad; his father, Paul; and grandmother, Esther, who is in her eighth decade.

"I've only built models before this," says Michael, a high school freshman. "My dad had built wooden furniture, but neither of us has built a boat."

The family is, in fact, building two boats that, finished or not, will be taken home to California by rental van at the end of their two-week stay.

Michael's grandmother has lived in the White Salmon area since she and her husband retired there in 1980. She saw the project as a way to bring the family together in a creative endeavor. "We all work together well," she says, "but I think I'm more of a gofer."

About half of the people Klebba has guided through building their first boat have been women, and he hopes to attract more female customers.

"I'd like to teach more girls," he says. "I've had a lot of women build canoes, and I think it's important to have young women build – to give them self-confidence, so they can say, 'I can make something.' Boys tend to do things like this, but girls don't."

New friendships

Klebba has seen firsthand how his boats change peoples' lives, from the students' scholastic improvement to the many adults who find lasting friendships with their fellow boat-builders.

He also admits to being touched by each newly created boat.

"They feel like my children. I'm like a proud daddy," he says. "We have picnics a couple of times a year to celebrate the boats 'cause we're all friends. We all helped build them."

Klebba credits the success of his Dreamboats business to the people of the region.

"White Salmon is such an outdoor community with windsurfers, mountain bikers, snowboarders, boat sailors, and more," he says. "I'm successful because of the people who live here."

• For more information on Ray Klebba's White Salmon Boat Works, see www.raysdreamboats.com, telephone (509) 493-4766, or write PO Box 578, White Salmon, WA 98672.

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