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John Ratzenberger Gives Kids the Tools to Build a Future

The actor wants to arm kids — with a hammer and a crescent wrench

John Ratzenberger

Cody Pickens

John Ratzenberger offers shop class to young kids as well as reitrees.

En español |  When I was growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., my friends and I played outside all the time. We dug holes, climbed trees, built tree houses and repaired our own bicycles. We grew up using tools to fix things.

When I was 14, I decided that I wanted to learn how to build a house and everything in it, and I did. I've built two of my own homes.

Now we have a new generation that is tool illiterate. Most young people don't have any idea how to use a crescent wrench or even a hammer. It's going to affect society. It's such a shame that school systems took away shop classes. Kids graduate from high school now without the ability to read a ruler. If you can't read a ruler, how are you going to measure anything? If you can't measure anything, how can you get a job making anything?

I'm 69, and I always told my kids, "Make sure you have a skill that nobody can take from you." As long as you possess that skill, you'll never have to worry about getting a job. My daughter, Nina, was the only coed in her college with her own toolbox. She ended up fixing a lot of things in her dorm. My son, James, was an English teacher and is now a plumber making more money than he ever thought possible.

Teaching kids trade skills began for me after college. I went to London to visit a friend who was a social worker and wound up staying there 10 years. I made a living as a carpenter. We got involved with some kids from a poorer section of London, and I began by teaching them how to make a kite. Eventually I started teaching them carpentry, and they all wanted to build something for their mothers' gardens. They built trellises and benches, even though they lived in high-rise tenements and didn't have gardens.

John Ratzenberger, teaching kids trades

Cody Pickens

John Ratzenberger teaches the kids trades.

Since then I've worked with plenty of kids, especially with Boys & Girls Clubs. At one workshop in Montana, we had planned for four hours, but were there for close to nine. The kids, who had never built anything before, didn't want to leave. When you build something from scratch, and can walk around it and show it off, that's real self-esteem.

About 10 years ago, I cofounded a foundation called Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs, and then I handed it over to another organization to run. It sets up summer camps to teach kids how to use tools. If you give kids a skill, they can do cool things.

Civilization was built by people who knew how to do things — people who got up in the morning and did something useful. Our job is to make the next generation self-reliant. You always want them to be smarter than you are.

— As told to Barbranda Lumpkins Walls

Actor-producer John Ratzenberger, 69, is building new shelves in his home — and teaching his two young grandchilden about tools.

Want to help kids learn about building? Here's where you can volunteer:

  • Boy Scouts of AmericaHelp Boy Scouts snag merit badges for home repairs, plumbing, welding or woodworking. Volunteers must register as adult leaders with the BSA, as well as complete training in youth protection.
  • Maker Camp: Kids ages 7 to 12 gather to build projects hosted by more than 700 Maker Camp affiliates worldwide. You can apply to launch a camp in your own neighborhood. Approved affiliates will receive digital materials, training and projects.
  • Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs: This group offers summer camps for teens, who learn about careers in manufacturing. You can volunteer to speak about your manufacturing experience or host a tour of your workplace.
  • Exploring: Skilled trades is one of the 12 career fields of this Boy Scouts of America affiliate program, which provides hands-on learning opportunities for young people ages 14 to 20. You can volunteer to share your expertise and serve as a mentor.