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Meet Colleen Swartz

Iron Interviews - 5 questions with BUILD Program Director Colleen Swartz

“It isn’t as much about the competition or the racing or the drama … it is all about finding the niche. It’s about giving an alternative. It’s about giving people value and pride and self worth.”
From working as a bee keeper to butchering meat, Colleen Swartz is the definition of a renaissance woman. Now the motorcycling enthusiast is lending her extensive knowledge of bikes, art and mechanics to the BUILD Moto Mentor program, developed by Tim Dixon, owner of The Iron Horse Hotel. “I’m inspired by the kids everyday, and love watching them find their niche,” says Swartz. So, what exactly does the future hold for this Jane of all trades and BUILD? “The sky’s the limit,” she laughs.
Q. How did you become a “Jane” of all trades?
A. I have a mother who did — and does — everything. My dad worked a lot and he wasn’t very handy, so Mom did just about everything around the house. She taught me to cook, can, garden, sew, keep bees, make maple syrup; we even built a patio together. We tuck-pointed the fieldstone farmhouse, and raised our own meat and butchered it. My mom is a real renaissance woman and I never learned there were male and female jobs. I take after her now in my job at Jonco Industries, where I am a designer and fabricator.
Q. How did you get involved in BUILD?
A. I was on a trip to Sturgis when Tim Dixon hatched the idea for BUILD. He met Kevin “Teach” Baas, who runs a chopper class in his shop department in the Minneapolis school district, and he was so impressed with the skills he was teaching through building a motorcycle that he wanted to do something similar with what was to become the BUILD program. Warren Heir, my co-worker, was on board immediately, and I volunteered for the first three BUILD seasons with Warren’s team. I have always loved supporting this program. I approached Tim Dixon and lobbied for the (director) job. Luckily, my three years of volunteering made me a good candidate.
Q. What has been your most memorable moment so far this season?
A. BUILD provides me with daily inspiration, but two events immediately come to my mind. We had a parent/student/mentor mixer a few months ago, and the parents of a second-year BUILD participant came up to me and told me that BUILD had changed their son’s life. He didn’t like school, didn’t see how it applied to him, didn’t do well with his grades, and had a hard time even showing up to school until the BUILD program. Now, if he doesn’t go to school he isn’t eligible to go to the BUILD program, and he has a reason to show up every day. He even hauls home old snowmobiles, and he and his friends work on getting them running again. He has found something he is really passionate about; his goals for his education and his career are coming together. The other story is even more poignant. One student doesn’t have the best home environment. His mom has some substance issues and his dad really isn’t in his life, but he found himself working with the BUILD program. The night we unveiled the BUILD bikes at The Iron Horse Hotel, his dad showed up. The BUILD mentor took his dad around the bike and pointed out all of the parts that his son had a hand in fabricating and all of the work he had put into the bike. His dad, who is a mechanic, looked at the BUILD mentor, and said, “I need to spend more time with my son.” That, for me, is what it is all about. It isn’t as much about the competition or the racing or the drama … it is all about finding the niche. It’s about giving an alternative. It’s about giving people value and pride and self worth. It’s about showing a dad that his son did take after him.
Q: If there’s one lesson you would like the youth participants to take away from the BUILD experience, what would it be?
A. My father worked for RCA for 37 years as a TV repairman. Can you imagine? Repairing TVs when they stopped working! When was the last time you repaired a TV, radio, blender or a car? We have become a society of “throw it away” and it’s had a negative impact on our environment, our skill set, our productivity, our historical preservation and our kids. I want these kids to walk away knowing that working with your hands is valuable. It is important and it can lead to a good living if you choose.
Q. Where would you like to see the program go from here?
A. I want to find a big contributor to financially secure the program. The Iron Horse Hotel has been a great underwriter of the program, and our sponsors and supporters have as well. I would love to make my job with BUILD a full-time endeavor, where I can write curriculum, market BUILD the way it deserves to be marketed and expand our program so it can reach so many more kids and make an even bigger impact. This program is so popular. So many people believe in it and support it. I’m missing the financial link that will take it from a hand-to-mouth non-profit to a “sky’s-the-limit” program. I have the momentum, support, talented mentors and kids, and now I need to take it to the next level. I know we will do it. Year five, here we come!  

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