This Brilliant Program Trains At-Risk Youth to Restore Classic Cars

Building hot rods for a cause

Some of the teens enrolled in the Lost Angels Children’s Project aren’t quite old enough to drive, but they certainly know their way around a hot rod. That’s because the program founded by mechanic Aaron Valencia, which he has run out of his tiny Lancaster auto shop since 2015, is set on teaching neighborhood kids how to restore and build custom cars. And it’s for a good cause.

Students working at the Lost Angels Children’s Project.

Photo courtesy of Paul Abell

Three times a week, Valencia’s students, who range in age between 13 and 19 and are often in foster care or at-risk, gather in his shop after school, where he teaches them bodywork, engine maintenance, and a host of other mechanical and engineering skills that they need to achieve their ultimate goal: Restoring a classic car, which they raffle off at the end of the class to raise money for the program. But Valencia says the restoration process is about more than just crafting a cool whip; It helps the kids hone valuable skills that will help them in their own lives.

“I’m not really pushing any of these kids to go get a job as a mechanic,” says Valencia. “If that’s what they want to do, great. But with classic car restoration, it’s all hands-on. The skills and the problem solving go into every aspect of life.”

The 2017 charity build

Photo courtesy of Mike Montes

During the first half of the program, he says, the kids work on a series of small-scale art and construction projects, like building birdhouses or painting skateboard decks. Aside from preparing them for the big build that happens during the second semester, the skills they pick up—like painting, drafting blueprints, and using metalworking tools—have the potential to transfer over to any number of hands-on jobs like construction, mechanics, plumbing, or welding. Valencia says he hopes to open his students eyes to their own potential.

“If you don’t know what’s out there, how do you know if you’re good at it?” says Valencia. “We try to give kids the opportunity to try a bunch of different things.”

A bimonthly roundtable discussion also helps kids work thorough emotional issues they might be dealing with. Valencia, whose own struggles with addiction and homelessness during his teenage years inspired him to start the program, says creating this sense of community and support is a key part of his mission.

“You’ve got anger issues, you’ve got abandonment issues, you’ve got a lot of stuff,” says Valencia. “We try and create coping mechanisms and identify some of the problems, [so the kids are] able to acknowledge it and know why they’re acting the way they act. We’re all on the same team. We’ve all been through it.”

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