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HOUSTON, TX- Walk around Houston’s Third Ward, and it can be a bit depressing. Abandoned buildings, trash in the streets and an overwhelming feeling of hardship are everywhere you look. But stop by 3615 Sauer Street, and just the opposite is true. That’s the home of Workshop Houston, a free after-school program providing kids with the keys to a better future.

Workshop Houston started out in 2003 as a bicycle shop where anyone from the community could come in and learn how to fix their own bike. But around middle school, the kids who used to show up seemed to lose interest. So, the founders decided to make a change, offering four different programs, free-of-charge, based on what the local students said they would be interested in.

The first of those, the Chopper Shop, teaches kids to weld, paint and engineer metal objects of their own imagination. Projects have included chopper bikes, artwork and go-karts. The Beat Shop offers kids a chance to record and produce songs they themselves write. The Style Shop teaches students how to design and sew clothing, hats and anything else they want to wear. And the Scholar Shop, the only required program, offers kids help with their homework or lessons about anything they are interested in. No topic is off-limits, including religion, now taboo in most schools. Each of the shops is under the guidance of caring and qualified adult supervision, like music producer Bass Heavy (who has worked with rappers Master P and Juvenile) and fashion designer Becky Hollands.

Truth be told, the folks at Workshop Houston are kind of a big deal! Just ask Michelle Obama who honored them at the White House with the National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award.

Co-director Reginald Hatter accepted the award last November with 13-year-old Brianna Burns, a star pupil in several of the shops. Though he was all smiles at the award ceremony, Hatter admits he was in tears the night before in his hotel room. “I know how it is to be a child who didn’t have things and people didn’t believe in,” says Hatter, having grown up in South Central L.A. with drug-addicted parents, “and I really believed in the kids. I felt like what we were doing was definitely needed, and for the United States of America to recognize that, it was all worth it.”

Workshop Houston plans to expand this year, offering additional programs in new buildings at their current location. But Hatter has a bigger vision for the group, saying he would like to see them branch out to other cities, “The services that we’re providing here are needed throughout our nation.”

Look for more on this story in this month’s Houstonia.