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Helping troubled and under-served kids through scale modeling

With support from their communities, two teachers bring scale models to local children
A student at Hector Thiboutot Community School in Sandy Bay, Saskatchewan, Canada in Mr. MacPhee's scale modeling club working on a model airplane.

Photo courtesy of Scott MacPhee
Byron Black, an African American substitute teacher in Topeka, Kansas, uses scale modeling to help at-risk youth in his community. Black started modeling 56 years ago while visiting a hobby store with his father, and the owner gave him a model kit to build. Modeling became a lifelong passion for Black.

Black mentored his grandkids, helping them win modeling awards in junior competitions. But it was his wife, a child therapist, who suggested Black use his skills to help some of the kids she worked with.

“I made a class up and taught it for about six weeks,” he said.

Black worked with a local hobby shop to get discounts for the kids. He also reached out to the members of the club he heads, Ad Astra Modeling Club in Topeka, for kit donations.

He let the kids pick the kits that interested them, often snap-together cars, and taught them to build, paint, and place decals.

“But the main thing was trying to teach them to understand what frustration was, how to work with it, how to work around that, and not give up,” Black said.

Almost 1,400 miles due north in Sandy Bay, Saskatchewan, Canada, Scott MacPhee saw the opportunity for scale modeling as an afterschool enrichment activity for a predominantly Indigenous student body. He started the club at the Hector Thiboutot Community School, where six students between 8 and 15 years old show up twice a week for an hour to build scale models.

Like Black, MacPhee needed kits for his mentees. He posted in a Facebook group called The Canadian Scale Model Aircraft and Military Builders Group and wrote to the Plastic Model Mojo podcast.

The group members and podcasters showed incredible support for the young Sandy Bay modelers.

“[There were] model-builders from Toronto donating, Ottawa donating, Winnipeg, Edmonton, as well as parts of the United States. As far south as Tampa Bay,” MacPhee said. “I have enough model kits and supplies for the next couple of years.”

One enthusiastic supporter, John McElwain, after seeing MacPhee’s post on Facebook, reached out to the hobby store Wheels and Wings Hobbies in Toronto, Ontario. Don McCowan and Kyle Hood, the store’s owner and manager, respectively, shared MacPhee’s campaign over social media and received model kits, paint, and tool donations from customers. They also worked with Games Workshop to get a Warhammer 40K Command Edition starter set with paints and supplies.

“Once all the miniatures were finished, the kids would still have the game itself to try out, and with all the rules and dice required would be a good reinforcement for literacy and mathematics,” Hood said.

McElwain, a former bush pilot who spent time flying into remote communities like Sandy Bay, recognized the difficulties faced by remote villages and the social and economic challenges Indigenous Peoples face. One of those challenges is the cost of shipping goods to difficult-to-reach locations, especially specialty items like plastic cement and paint that is flammable and hazardous.

“But it would just fit in my car with room left in the two front seats,” he said.

McElwain and his son loaded their car and drove nearly 2,000 miles from Toronto, Ontario, to Flin Flon, Manitoba, where they met MacPhee to deliver the donations collected at the store.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” McElwain said. He ran a GoFundMe campaign that raised enough donations to help cover about 75% of the trip’s costs.

According to MacPhee, his afterschool workshop does more than introduce scale modeling to children who might not have otherwise encountered it.

“A lot of students here have gone without school for some time during COVID,” MacPhee said. “We need to improve their math skills and literacy skills [and] looking at the instructions, step by step, that involves not only reading but also involves mathematical skills.”

While both Black and MacPhee enjoy their hobby, it’s the boost of creativity, confidence, and learning for the children that they care about the most.

“If one or two kids have benefitted from this club, then my effort was well worth it,” MacPhee said.
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