Shaping metal, changing lives

Creative metal shop provides unique opportunity for at-risk youth

Margaret Martin, owner of Decorative Metal Services, has come across some tough kids in her program that teaches welding skills to juveniles who have gotten in trouble with the law. But working with metal seems to soften some of them up.

“In just two weeks, the change in the kids is phenomenal,” she said.

Many of the kids come in with an attitude, said Martin, who owns the business with her husband. The kids arrive freely admitting that they don’t want to be there. But by the end of the program, she said, they ask to come back and learn more.

Giving back and taking something away
The youth program was derived from the Welding Art School that Decorative Metal Services first introduced when it moved into its current location near downtown Vancouver two years ago.

Decorative Metal Services teamed up with the Clark County Juvenile Court to allow the teens to perform restitution while at the same time learning a skill. Projects created by the students such as decorative trellises, planters, arbors and benches are sold to support victims of crime.

“Some young people do not have the opportunity to raise money to pay victims of crime back,” said Arlan McMullen, restorative community service coordinator for Clark County Juvenile Court. “It focuses in on the impacts of their crimes and gives them an opportunity to learn and grow from the experience.”

McMullen said the partnership with a local business is unique. Instead of being labeled a criminal and serving a punishment, participants in the welding school have an opportunity to make things right, and gain confidence and self esteem at the same time.

Three sessions have been held since the program began in December 2004. For three weeks, the teens spend three days a week for three hours each day learning basic welding skills used toward completing a project. The cost of running the program has been funded by donations, and Martin is working on obtaining non-profit status for the program to allow for additional sources of funding and expansion.

Decorative Metal Services is nearing completion of a gallery in its 12,000-square-foot warehouse facility near the Amtrak station west of downtown. There, the students’ work will be displayed and sold. Until now, the program has been limited to selling at events, such as the county fair, and to parents and court staff. Seventy percent of proceeds go to victims of crime and 30 percent is pumped back into the program.

Martin is working to raise enough money to open up the program to all at-risk youth. Each class is limited to 10 students. Seeing that many of the kids were eager to learn more, Martin decided to allow participants to take the course up to three times.

For some of the kids, said Martin, “It gives them an idea of what they want to do with their lives.”

The cost of creativity
Decorative Metal Services has been in business since 1987. The company’s shop was previously located in Hazel Dell. Margaret Martin’s husband, Butch Martin, the creative force of Decorative Metal Services, had been in the business for 20 years with another firm and decided to start his own shop. Previously, Margaret Martin had owned a childcare business, but gave it up to run the business side of Decorative Metal Services.

Margaret Martin said Decorative Metal Services has contributed to projects in nearly every state in the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. They have also brought their services to locales international, with work in Russia, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

Today, Decorative Metal Services has five employees, as opposed to the 20 it once had. The downturn in the economy and the increasing cost of doing business forced the company to cut back its workforce. Martin said there were fewer jobs to bid on, and the cost of traveling to jobs made long-distance projects less feasible.

“It was a fiscal decision,” said Martin, “to make sure we could survive.”

Two years ago Decorative Metal Services had revenues of more than $2 million and now they are less than $1 million. In addition, the cost of steel has increased dramatically. For example, Martin said within the past three years, a steel sheet has jumped in price from $6 to $18. The company works with a variety of metals, and price increases are passed on to clients, said Martin.

The company is focused on projects in the Northwest, but doesn’t rule out projects based on location. Martin relies on temporary workers when the workload demands it. And while business is improving, she doesn’t foresee hiring in the near future.

“We have enough work to keep us busy,” said Martin.

On the drawing board
The company recently completed a project at a movie theatre in Lacey, and is working on a number of projects in Oregon, including a federal courthouse in Eugene, Portland State University’s Ondine residence hall and two parks in Wilsonville.

Dan Chin, a project manager at Portland urban design, planning and landscape architectural firm Murase and Associates, is working with Decorative Metal Services on a project at Wilsonville Town Center Park. Decorative Metal is fabricating stainless steel tables and chairs and components of a water feature for the overall park improvement project.

“Being a smaller company, it is easier for us to establish a relationship with them right away,” said Chin. “They are very accommodating and sit down with us to work out the details.”

Decorative Metal Services performs a variety of work, including deck and stair railings for upscale hotels and public buildings, and they have also produced lighting fixtures, chandeliers and other ornamental pieces. A local, often seen piece is the iron work on the gates of Portland’s PGE Park.

Decorative Metal Services works with contractors and bids for its projects. Martin said the company is often chosen for its ability to handle more creative metal work.

“Sometimes the architects will go a little crazy and want it to look really different,” said Martin. “That is our bent, we love it.”

Going forward, Martin hopes to build up Decorative Metal Service’s workload, but keep it at a manageable level to allow the Welding Art School to grow.

“I enjoy teaching and the students,” said Martin. “Personally it is more satisfying. We are making a difference.”

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