Cruise Control

Minddrive steers at-risk teens to hopeful futures.
Minddrive's 1972 Kharmann Ghia at Google's corporate headquarters in Mountain View|!!| California

   For 32 weeks during the school year, they meet for four hours on Saturdays, restoring and converting vintage cars to run on electricity.

   They hone their communication skills and learn to work on teams with people they don’t know. Oftentimes, this involves scraping rust for months or learning how to bend metal or share tools.

   They work with mentors who stress not only the value of learning skills like math but also that successful futures are within their grasp.

   They take road trips to expand their imaginations and see what’s possible. Last year, for example, they took a 1972 Karmann Ghia to visit, among other places, Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California.

   They’re teenage students at Minddrive, a nonprofit program that serves about 45 at-risk high school students from the urban core of Kansas City and other areas who are slipping through the cracks of the traditional educational system.

   After immersion in the program, “they kind of walk a little taller,” says Linda Buchner, president of Minddrive. “They seem a little prouder. They become leaders of their schools.”

   Minddrive, with its hands-on, project-based learning model, turned Emilia Padilla’s life around.

   The 19-year-old was adrift, running around with a violent crowd, not sure what her future held. Then she joined Minddrive. Always a lover of cars, she found she had an aptitude for working on brakes and motors, what she calls the “powerhouse of the car.”

   “I loved taking things apart, seeing how they work, and putting them back together again,” says Padilla, a 2014 Alta Vista Charter High School graduate who is in her second year at Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla. She’s studying mechanical engineering on a full-ride scholarship.

   Her path to Minddrive came at a crucial time in her life.

   “I can’t go into too much detail because of the trouble it could get me in, but I was around a lot of bad people that were doing a lot of bad things,” she says. “Hanging with them and being around them and being affiliated with them and what they were doing basically put me in the same trouble that they were in. I thought I wasn’t going to even finish high school.”

   She joined Minddrive after its representatives spoke about the 5-year-old program at her high school. Things began to change for her, especially after working with some of the group’s 20 mentors, including engineers, architects, chemists, carpenters, salespeople and businesspeople who bring various skills, like welding or merely an interest in problem-solving, to the table.

   “I didn’t think I would even go to college, but getting to know these mentors on a different level other than academically kind of helped push me academically. I thought, ‘OK, this mentor went through some hard times, they know what it feels like, and they went to college and they have a degree and are doing very well for themselves now.’ It kind of gave me hope that if they can do it, I can do it.”

   Padilla “has completely transformed into this beautiful young lady who has all kinds of confidence,” Buchner says.

   Mentors, who each work with two students, are crucial to the success of Minddrive, says its founder and CEO, Steve Rees.

minddrive kansas city

Minddrive students Luis (left) and Jesus (right) working with Minddrive CEO Steve Rees

 

   “What we want is for them to find their passion, whatever it is,” Rees says about the students. “That may happen by them standing next to an engineer, but it may not be about engineering. It could be about bioscience. Or it could be about pediatrics. Not only does the mentor bring an academic platform with real-world application, but they also are role models as individuals. So the kid may say, ‘I want to have a car like that. I want to be able to have a family like that. I want to go on vacations like that. Therefore, I want to graduate from high school. I want to go to college.’ So the role-model aspect of it is probably as critical as anything.”

   Rees, an architect by trade and a race car enthusiast, sold his firm in 2007 and began working with kids who he felt might need role models to put them on the right path at DeLaSalle Education Center in Kansas City. He called his Saturday class “Creative Studio and Entrepreneurial Studies,” which explored such things as how to build a business, how to build a bridge, how to write a paper and how to write a book.

   He knew he wanted to do a car project with the kids, so together they built a full-size car made out of Styrofoam. To his surprise, the kids wanted to make a real car and kept pushing him to make that happen. So he found a friend who gave him a bay at a body shop. It blossomed from there. With the help of sponsors and additional volunteer mentors, he and Buchner, who has a background in marketing, formed Minddrive in 2010.

   Walt Accurso is a mechanical engineer who has been a mentor with the program for five years.

   “We’re just a bunch of geeky guys who like to have fun with cars,” he says. “I like being around cars. I like people and I love kids. I like the learning environment. It’s a very creative place to go, and it helps me stay on top of my game. There’s a lot of reward for doing what I’m doing there. If you speak to any of the other mentors there, they will tell you the same thing: ‘I get more out of it than the kids.’”

   Andy Ratkewicz, a structural engineer who has been a Minddrive mentor for four years, agrees.

   “Someone helped me when I was younger, and it had a dramatic impact on my life, and so I’m giving back,” he says.

    Minddrive cars are works of beauty, such as the futuristic-looking vehicle called Lola, the organization’s first project, that was based on a wrecked 2002 Lola Indy chassis, rebuilt with a wire frame and a transparent plastic body by the students for maximum lightness and efficiency. They’ve also rebuilt several Karmann Ghias, five of which were bought on Craigslist in various states of disrepair.

minddrive kansas city

Minddrive's first car, Lola, was a restored and converted Indianapolis 500 race car with a wire frame and plastic body, creating an ultra-efficient car.

 

   “The cool thing about Karmann Ghias is they are the exact same as a Volkswagen Beetle, so parts are readily available and inexpensive,” Buchner says. “So the kids completely take everything off of them and then we get brand-new parts and rebuild them. Meanwhile, they take the transmission out and replace it with an electric motor. The back seat becomes the battery box that houses the lithium batteries.”

   The students and their mentors exhibit the cars on annual trips. In 2012, they took an electrified Lotus Esprit on a cross-country trip from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida. In 2013, they took an electrified 1967 Karmann Ghia, converted to run on social media by a device that changed tweets, Instagrams and Facebook likes into fuel power, to Washington, D.C.   

   Funded through national sponsorships, local foundations and individual contributors, Minddrive also gets money through fundraising efforts of the students and through the sale of some of the Karmann Ghias.

   Working with more than 15 area schools, its classes meet from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and are free to the students, but their schools are charged $500 a student. Students need not have any skills working on cars, but must apply. They can attend one of two core programs: Automotive Design Studio or Contemporary Communications. Additionally, Minddrive offers evening classes in more specialized areas such as welding, CAD (computer-aided drafting), video editing and innovative design.

   Although no grades are given, Minddrive participation has shown that students’ grades, attendance and engagement at school improves. All participants have ended up graduating from high school, including one who recently earned a high-school equivalency degree.

   “It incentivizes them to come because they know their school is paying for them to be here,” Buchner says. “We have a very low tolerance for absence because we only have so many spots and we want the kids that are here to be dedicated to the program.”

   Kelvin Duley, 21, a sophomore at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri, majoring in communications, is one such dedicated student. He first started at Minddrive working on cars, but found that he was drawn to the variety of studies that the communications program offered, such as videography, photography and social media.

   “I didn’t put too much thought into college,” before Minddrive, says the 2012 DeLaSalle graduate. “It opened up the door for me and allowed me to step outside the box and realize there’s a lot of value in education. Now I’m enjoying college a lot.”

   Paula Guinn, Minddrive executive director, says the program changes lives.

   “This cycle of intergenerational poverty and hopelessness and lack of mentorship and lack of a clear vision for what could be in their future —   expanding that vision with these trips, working on cars, creating a video, all of these things are so dynamic and give such pride at what they can do,” she says.

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