by Paul Williams

The “Cobra Kids” are back on track.

For a while, however, it appeared the group of homeless teens and other youth
would never get to assemble a Cobra-style kit car and at the same time acquire automotive job skills.

Cobra kids
L to R: Daryl Serrurier, Tasha Gobeil, Calvin Bertrand, Marcin Kubat, Tatiana Dinelle, Patrick Siamro. Click image to enlarge

Meeting special insurance requirements and recruiting local partners have
been the biggest challenges, says Jan Sistek, manager of Ottawa’s Rideau
Street Youth Enterprises, and originator of the innovative program. “But we’ve got a great team of six kids and everything’s come together, now that the Merivale Canadian Tire, Engines Extra, and Algonquin College, among others, have come on board,” says Mr. Sistek.

The sports car will be built from scratch under the supervision of an auto technician, and raffled for charity. The federal government pays for
training costs, and local businesses are donating or supplying at cost the
parts and equipment.

The goal is for the young people to move into automotive apprenticeships after the training is completed this fall.

Instructor Bill McDougall loves the challenge. One of the men behind the Chimo and Auburn Speedster kit cars of the 1980s, he says he’s pleased with
the group.

“They’ve stuck right in and got their hands dirty,” he adds. “They turn up inthe morning on time and all have an aptitude for this kind of work. It’s
very gratifying.”

His enthusiasm is shared by Gerry Lecavalier of Lecavalier Auto/Truck, where the car is being built. “I’m involved with the local apprenticeship
committee and we’re looking to get young people interested in the trade,” Mr. Lecavalier says.

“I’ve seen these kids here at 6:45 a.m., over an hour early, ready for work. I’ve got room in my business for people with an attitude like this.”

Group members have received life skills training (covering health and safety, team building and personal finances) and have been introduced to the range
of automotive trades.

As well, they’ve removed an engine from a donated car and started to prepare the car chassis and body, which is from EVA Sportscars in Vankleek Hill, for

The engine will be rebuilt courtesy of Engines Extra in Bells Corners, but the trainees will do the rest of the assembly, including brakes, suspension,
interior and electrical.

“I show them how to do things, and how to use the tools,” says Mr. McDougall. “Then they do the work.”

Tatiana Dinelle, 18, one of two young women in the group, looks forward to
getting a job placement after the car is built. “This is better than your
typical program,” she says. “Now I can pay my rent and go to school.”

All the team members are between 17 and 21. Two have high school diplomas,
and the others are working on them as part of the program. Only one has a
driver’s licence, which is another qualification that will be acquired
during the training.

All are keen to build the car, and spent a recent session discussing its
colour (Shelby blue with a white stripe, at this point), wheels, interior
(beige leather), transmission (five-speed), engine specifications and other
distinguishing features of the finished vehicle.

Cobra kids
L to R: Tasha Gobeil, Calvin Bertrand, Tatiana Dinelle, Patrick Siamro, Marcin Kubat, Daryl Serrurier. Click image to enlarge

Although the original Cobra was built well before they were born, all say
they were aware of the car prior to signing on. Mr. Sistek explains that a
Cobra replica was chosen because of its general popularity, and ability to
inspire young people who may be considering auto apprenticeships.

Another booster is Matt Caplan, hardware manager at the Merivale Canadian
Tire. Already known for restoring cars and raffling them for charity
(currently a 1959 Cadillac), he sees this project as a way to involve youth
who may not have been thought of in the past. With support from R.J. Bonneville, owner of the Merivale store, Mr. Caplan is making a full range of parts available to the project.

“It’s starting to snowball, now,” says Mr. Caplan. “Other companies like
Edelbrock and Keystone are suggesting ways of building the vehicle (with
special performance and handling parts). People are getting interested in
this and seeing its potential into the future.”

Mr. McDougall cautions that the Cobra Kids aren’t building a hot rod. His
vision is a powerful car, befitting the vehicle type, but manageable to
drive and without exotic components that may require special maintenance.

“You don’t know who’s going to win the car. But likely it’ll be someone who
hasn’t driven this type of vehicle before, so we want to make it something
that’s useable and safe for the average driver, but still fun, of course.”

Mr. Lecavalier and Mr. Caplan agree that this program could live on after the
first car is built. “There’s a national shortage of automotive professionals, so the work is there,” says Mr. Lecavalier. “A program like this gives trainees a general, introduction to the automotive trades, including mechanical, body, paint and parts, so it’s a good foundation.”

Organizers are still looking for sponsors to help with parts and expenses.
Donations are tax-deductible. If you’d like to help, contact Jan Sistek at
613 562-3864.

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