When meeting with the director of Safe Harbor Boys Home and Maritime Academy about volunteer opportunities earlier this year, Jo Ann and John Greco were asked to revive its out-of-service upholstery shop. The couple, who own upholstery business J & J Custom Design LLC, took on the challenge with relish, developing a program to teach vocational skills to at-risk teenage boys.
Safe Harbor was founded 34 years ago when a judge asked the founders, a retired couple named Robbie and Doug Smith, to care for a troubled boy on their large sailboat instead of sending him to juvenile hall. The success led to more calls from the judge before Safe Harbor was formalized as a nonprofit organization in 1984. Today, Safe Harbor provides a safe, stable alternative to boarding schools and juvenile programs, along with on-site education and counseling, diving and fishing instructions, and training for woodworking and boat repair.
Jo Ann and John founded J & J Custom Design in 2013 in North Carolina before relocating to Jacksonville, Fla., three years ago. The couple are the business’s only employees and John works a full-time job, leaving much of the day-to-day operations to Jo Ann, who has 30 years of sewing experience. The business provides light upholstery services for the home and marine applications, from repairing and replacing cushions and bolsters to major canvas upgrades.
Renovating the shop has proven to be quite a challenge; the cast-iron Singer sewing machines date back to the 1900s, and Jo Ann says it’s difficult to find the right needles and bobbins to fit the seven commercial upholstery machines. But it’s worth the trouble, she says: “They’re dinosaurs, but they still work.”
Funding supplies for the shop is another difficulty. To address those needs, the couple has donated medical stools and trash cans for the space, and plans to tap into their relationships with upholstery vendors for material donations. “It’s important to get the necessary things to move the program forward, so we’re trying to do it as economically as possible,” Jo Ann says.
“It’s being done out of brute force and determination,” John adds.
Because the boys of Safe Harbor live on donated sailboats, the program’s first priority is to address the boys’ individual needs for living spaces. After teaching them basic sewing skills, the boys will learn how to create boat cushions and hatch covers for the boats’ air conditioning units.
The weekly three-hour class not only provides the boys with valuable life skills and a math credit for school, but also teaches them skills that could lead to a job in the marine fabrication industry. “While it’s a small industry, there’s a huge amount of need for skilled sewers,” says John. “Some distributors have told us, ‘Let us know when these kids develop the skills, and we might have a job for them.’”
Among those companies could be J & J Custom Design. “We’d like to groom the kids to help expand our business in the future,” says Jo Ann. “I’m sure as we start working with them, we’ll see the natural talent that will come out.”
Jahna Peloquin is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.