As I walk into the Magic City Woodworks woodworking studio, located in a cavernous brick warehouse building in downtown Birmingham, a group of seemingly professional woodworkers are gathered together near a worktable, taking turns speaking. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they are clearly engaged in a meaningful give-and-take. Then, they break apart in a bustle of freedom. Someone grabs a basketball, and the others begin setting up plywood over glass windows, turning the open area of the shop into a makeshift basketball court. A kind young woman escorts me to a laid-back office-space-meets-showroom on the other side of the plywood-covered windows.
Echoing voices, the staccato squeak of sneakers and the thump of the bouncing basketball reverberate in the space next door. It is a cacophony reminiscent of childhood recess. Lawrence Sheffield, the brains behind this outfit, joins me. A basketball crashes and rattles the plywood against the glass. Lawrence jokes, “We’re definitely rough around the edges. And we like it that way.” He explains that today was set aside for quality-control training. “It brings the most dignity to our mission if we are doing our work the right way. So you walked in on a good day. We’ve been learning, and our staff got critiqued by all the apprentices — they got to give us one piece of positive feedback and one piece of constructive criticism.” The apprentices are 14 young men, ages 18 to 35, now employed by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This is under the stewardship of the experienced staff, some of whom are graduates of the program themselves.
The Origin Story
Lawrence is humble and almost boyish in appearance, but this fresh-faced façade belies his 10+ years of experience as a woodworker, entrepreneur, businessman, nonprofit leader, mentor, teacher and counselor. When this whole journey began, he wasn’t much older than the youngsters he now mentors.
Twelve years ago, Lawrence graduated high school and became a fireman. All the while, he was cultivating his love and knowledge of woodworking as a hobby. The next year, he suddenly lost his father, which crushed him. He went through a tough time of hopelessness and uncertainty until he discovered his spiritual core in Christianity. “My life changed dramatically. Instantly. I realized that I was put on this Earth to serve and that I had a purpose,” says Lawrence, who had an epiphany that the woodworking trade could be a conduit for changing lives — specifically for young men like him, who didn’t go to college and who liked working with their hands. “So this whole thing all really started from a dream to serve young, unemployed men, where we could use the workweek to help tie people into a deeper sense of purpose. I had a one-car garage, and I started inviting unemployed young guys back to the shop who wanted to learn a trade.”
The bare-bones model worked, and more young men wanted in. Soon, a gracious donor gifted Lawrence with a building downtown. Magic City Woodworks has flourished, having graduated 60+ apprentices in its stewardship. “This is a place of employment. We have real customers and real deadlines. Our apprentices are paid hourly and have lots of different opportunities to earn raises. We cover 70 percent of our budget through our sales,” says Lawrence of the conference room tables, restaurant tables, dining and coffee tables, and company gifts they churn out regularly. He maintains that taking this 501(c)(3) into the marketplace offered these young men the kind of real-world job training that would truly serve them in the long run.
The Real Work
While they work hard to produce beautiful woodworking products, the real work happens in the in-between moments. “We come in in the morning and stretch. We get in a big circle and we do jumping jacks and push-ups and we get loose,” says Lawrence. Apprentices are assigned to one of five departments — metal, lumber, milling, assembly and finishing — where they have goals for each day.
In addition to basketball, the apprentices can use a full drum set and band equipment during breaks. “We try to have a playful approach to our breaks. It clears the mind. It builds teamwork — they will go into a huddle and say, ‘4th Quarter!’ meaning that’s our last push of the day,” says Lawrence.
“We’re talking about the heart from 12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. every day. We do lunch-and-learns four days a week — financial literacy education, interview prep classes, pastors come to speak,” says Lawrence. “We can go deep into a lot of different sensitive subjects when it comes to how we serve our families and our communities. We don’t want to try to be all things to all people; what we really want to do is make as big a difference as we can in the space that we’re in.”
Lawrence walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to making a difference. When somebody makes a mistake at the shop, his approach is revolutionary — one might call it radical love — and it’s a healing process that these guys need. “Say that somebody cuts a table short — a $10,000 conference room table that we have to redo — that’s where we get to do the real job training,” says Lawrence. “We take the time to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ We usually hit on some feeling based in shame. They’ll be like, ‘Well, I wanted to hide it.’ And we’re like, ‘What’s that inside you that wanted to hide that?’ And so we’ve created this culture where there’s a lot of honesty. And you’ll find out, ‘Well, my dad was super hard on me’ or ‘I got fired from my last job, and I got scared.’ And so, we want to break that and say, ‘Hey, there’s actually a different way you can do it: You can admit your mistake and speak the truth even if your voice shakes,’ And so we always reward that when that happens.”
He adds, “It slows us down in a way, but it speeds us up in a more important way.”
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A light shines through Lawrence’s humble veneer when he talks about the company’s “Impact Kits,” just launched earlier this year. “The thing I’m most excited about right now is that we’ve been building furniture for families in need. We’ve been putting aside 30 percent of our profit into an Impact Fund, working alongside our donors as well — we’re going to get 200 families a four-piece set of furniture of the same caliber stuff we normally produce,” he says. “We call it our Impact Program, and we have an Impact Kit for kids. So, we’ve gotten to give away 5,000 of those with the help of our donors this year — all over Birmingham, and we’ve gotten to send them across state lines too.”
Magic City Woodworks’ success has not gone unnoticed. Lawrence regularly gets inquiries and graciously gives tours, but as the requests grow, he’s decided to host the first official tour this coming November. He will be giving a full group a comprehensive tour and rundown of the operation, and it’s purely out of his servant’s heart that he’s doing it. Says Lawrence, “My heart is not to have Magic City Woodworks in different cities; it’s to invite people to come and show them everything that we do and they can go run with it.”
Lawrence is at a loss for words when it comes to mining his own radical love around his company. He’s proud and grateful and acknowledges that many young men have also taught him and made him and the program better. “There have been hard stories along the way; there have also been awesome stories,” he says. “But I love watching the light bulb turn on. Whether it’s our apprentices, staff, donors, customers — when they realize that there is so much more to work. You know, we spend most of our lives at work — so when they realize, It’s not just all about money; I can make a difference at work, it’s like — Ding! The light bulb comes on. All of a sudden, you see them just have so much more appreciation for the people around them and the work that we do. We start to have this ‘We get to’ mentality rather than ‘We have to’ mentality. And that’s really fun.”
Thank you to Magic City Woodworks for sharing these images.
To learn more about Magic City Woodworks, to shop the goods, to book a tour of the shop or to make an order or a donation, email [email protected], call (205) 983-7435 or visit magiccitywoodworks.org.
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