In her book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” Elizabeth Gilbert encourages us to trust our instincts and listen to our gut.

She also reminds us that we come from a long line of makers — for thousands of years, if we had a problem, we figured out a solution and then made whatever it was we needed. We didn’t like sitting on the ground? We invented the chair. We were tired of eating off the floor? We created the table.

Right here in Wilmington, there’s a business that practices Gilbert’s Big Magic every day, staffed by young men learning to trust their creative instincts and live beyond fear. They hear what a client wants and they figure out how to make it — and make it not only functional, but also beautiful. By acquiring these skills, these young men are charting a path to a promising future.

In a beautiful building tucked away on the sleepy 7th Street Peninsula sits the Challenge Program, a nonprofit organization founded in Wilmington in 1995 that teaches the city’s at-risk youth the building and construction trades, as well as the life skills they need to become self-sufficient. It’s a highly successful model that’s been widely recognized in the community.

Founder Andrew McKnight has received numerous awards, including the 2009 Jefferson Public Service Award, the Delaware Valley U.S. Green Building Council’s Groundbreaker Award, AIA Philadelphia Chapter’s Gold Award, AIA Pennsylvania’s Honor Award and the Next Generation Leadership Award from the Wilmington Urban League.

Now, McKnight and his team have expanded their vision for the Challenge Program (CP) to include the design and manufacturing of custom handmade furniture for residential and commercial clients. They’re calling it, appropriately enough, CP Furniture.

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A social enterprise, CP Furniture reinvests its proceeds into the Challenge Program, while also providing jobs and advanced training opportunities to CP graduates. Since CP Furniture began in January 2016, the business has quickly grown to include clients in Delaware, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Their list of commercial clients is impressive — Honeygrow, Rag & Bone, Philadelphia Union, Heirloom Restaurant, Grain Craft Bar & Kitchen, The Archer Group, The Mill, the Kitchen, The Nature Conservancy and Tech Impact, just to name a few. And their residential work typically comes to them via interior designers looking for high-end product.

With all of this success, CP Furniture is also learning how to hone its business model to make it more profitable and better support the Challenge Program. With that in mind, McKnight says they’ll be launching a furniture line later this year to standardize their offerings a bit more, making it easier to produce the pieces at a scale that will improve their current breakeven financial position.

Right now, CP Furniture employs two graduates of the Challenge Program as full-time furniture makers. But not only are they learning how to marry the art of furniture design with the craft of furniture making, they’re also learning all the other aspects of the business — finances, customer relations and marketing—providing them with a complete package of skills and knowledge that could prepare them to run their own business someday.

The Challenge Program and CP Furniture have also been good community partners, working with other nonprofit organizations and government agencies and providing their skills to specific projects. One example will be on display soon in Wilmington’s Creative District—a parklet commissioned by Wilmington Renaissance Corporation and designed by Wilmington Placemakers Inc. It was to be unveiled Friday as part of the Creative District’s Inspire Lot Series, a block party held in conjunction with the City of Wilmington’s First Friday Art Loop.

“Our product is high-end, high-quality furniture—functional art with a handcrafted, organic feel,” says McKnight. “But just as important, we’re helping develop well-rounded, talented people, giving them the skills and courage to enter the workforce, either as employees or business owners.”

That is the kind of fearless, creative living that will benefit Wilmington for years to come. And that is Big Magic.

Behind the scenes is a column by leaders of area arts organizations that looks at how they cope with the demands and challenges of focusing on the arts in the First State. Dr. Carrie W. Gray is the managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corp.

For more information

On the Challenge Program: 
On CP Furniture: visit