Southside Woodworks Helps Turn Lives Around
By Frances Figart
Eric Howell loves taking materials that many would call waste and transforming them into handcrafted, functional products. Growing up in rural Spartanburg County, South Carolina, Eric was introduced to woodworking by his uncle, who used carpentry to teach him the value of hard work.
In 2009, Eric moved to Asheville and enrolled in the Built Environment Training Program offered by Green Opportunities (GO), a nonprofit organization that connects youth and adults from low-wealth neighborhoods to employment opportunities that support families and improve communities.
“The program allowed me to show people what I am capable of,” says Eric. “It also showed me that no matter how hard it gets, if you push past it, you can do—and be—anything you want.”
Because of his strong work ethic and ability to relate to other students’ needs, Eric became the program’s assistant trainer upon graduating from GO in 2014. Then he got an even greater opportunity when GO’s lead trainer, Doug Sharkey, asked him if he wanted to help start a new enterprise: Southside Woodworks.
Launched by Eric and Doug in 2015, Southside Woodworks handcrafts custom furniture and other items. Their fully equipped fine woodworking studio is located in the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center in the heart of Asheville’s Southside neighborhood. Handmade products include everything from cutting boards and knife racks to garden sheds, picnic tables, raised beds, and other outdoor garden necessities. Commissioned custom projects include cabinets, tables, and other home furnishings.
“Our mission is to employ those facing barriers to employment in the crafting of beautiful, high-quality goods,” says Doug, who also helped build the construction lab at the Edington Center. “The ability to create with your own two hands is incredibly empowering. We are teaching skills that no one can take away and that you can, in turn, pass on to others.”
As a GO enterprise, Southside Woodworks employs students during and after their training. The goal is to help students support themselves while they complete the training program, before embarking on a new career. Eric, who enjoys helping others generate their own incomes, acknowledges the barriers students still face even after graduating from the program. That’s why the focus is not only on building wooden products, he says, but also on building strong community relationships.
“Southside Woodworks employees are able to earn a living and make something beautiful, all while helping their community,” says Doug, who is continually inspired by seeing others become engaged in woodworking.
“We are creating real opportunities for students to learn a trade and turn their inspirations into reality,” he adds. “Each piece carries within it the compassion, community, and craftsmanship of its maker, and every purchase makes a huge difference in the lives of our students and their families.”
For more information about Green Opportunities, visit greenopportunities.org. To browse the Southside Woodworks product line, visit southsidewoodworks.com. To commission a custom project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.