As the founder of the nonprofit Pilchuck Hot Rod Academy, Grinnell, 46, urges academy students -- primarily high school kids at risk of dropping out -- to find a way to graduate or take the GED test.
He hands out study guides, makes sure the academy's donated computers are turned on and keeps food in the fridge for hungry teens. Adults with car fabrication knowledge donate time to teach students skills that can launch job searches in the real world.
Grinnell likes to quote the school's motto. "The academy is where education meets the streets," he said.
Public school educators at several nearby alternative schools have sent students to the academy. On a recent morning 17-year-old David Valliant of Camano Island is hanging out at Pilchuck, a warehouse off Smokey Point Boulevard between Marysville and Arlington.
David recently got a new pair of construction boots, thanks to a school donation, and Grinnell stomps on David's steel-toed feet. They laugh.
Much of what is taught at the academy are life skills, Grinnell said. How to work as a team, how to grill a hamburger, how to clean a bathroom, how to write a resume, how to pull apart a carburetor, how to be safe.
The place is replete with donated tools and equipment of all kinds, a library with more than 3,000 issues of Hot Rod magazine dating back to 1959 and stacks of how-to videos for numerous car repair and construction projects.
Three vehicles are in various stages of repair in the middle of the warehouse. The students are at work on a 1964 Chevy Impala, a 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a 1949 Ford pickup.
Across the driveway, at Accurate Lines Collision Repair, one of the academy's success stories is hard at work washing and detailing an SUV.
Stephen Michael, 16, of Marysville, is pleased that he has a job.
"I'm the shop boy," Stephen said with a smile. "I plan to get my GED and stay in the car mechanics industry. I couldn't have done it without Pilchuck Hot Rod Academy."
The inspiration at the academy is Grinnell, the teen said.
"Dave is very helpful. He knows how to break it down for kids," Stephen said. "He understands things from our perspective a lot better than most adults."
And that, Grinnell said, is because he was just like Stephen at one time.
"God put me here because I understand."
Grinnell never finished high school, though he tried twice, at Mariner High School and later at Cascade High in south Everett where he grew up.
"School just wasn't for me," he said.
Though he was homeless a couple times, Grinnell eventually worked his way from restaurant jobs to work as a car mechanic to the construction industry, for which he poured concrete for more than 20 years until several injuries forced him to stop.
"My dad was strict and I learned how to work," Grinnell said. "But I worked so hard I just couldn't do it anymore. It took it out of me. I had broken bones and was a mess, physically and emotionally. At the same time, I couldn't sit still. I had to do something to help others."
His counselor urged Grinnell to follow his passion and open the academy about a year ago.
"A lot of people laughed when I first started talking about it," Grinnell said. "However, as soon as I secured use of the building and socked a bunch of my own money in it, the tools started rolling in and other volunteers jumped in to help."
People know that helping kids become productive, employable members of the community is good for everybody, Grinnell said. With a GED, teens can take technology classes at the community college level. With skills, they can get a job.
"A lot of these kids just need to know that someone cares, and I do," he said. "We're not going to get federal grants to fund this place because we're not accredited and likely we won't ever be. But we can help kids from the juvenile justice system, from homeless shelters and dead ends."
Grinnell lauds his board of directors -- Kate Otey, Mike Rosebrook and Brandon Skeeters -- for their help in getting the school going. Many other people, including Grinnell's wife of 21 years, Shari, and business owners from the area, have helped, too.
Steve Velez, owner of Accurate Lines Collision and Custom Repair where Stephen works, said he supports Grinnell's efforts.
"My philosophy is that some day these kids are going to be taking care of us, so we need to take care of them and get them going in the right direction," Velez said. "I hope people will support Dave's fundraiser this weekend."
Pilchuck Hot Rod Academy's car show is set for noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the school. The event features a car show, live music, food and a raffle.
"Dave needs help from people who can donate time to the school," Velez said. "There are a lot of unemployed men out there now who could share an hour or two a day to help. These kids show up there because they want to. We need to help them stay out of trouble."
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
A fundraiser for the Pilchuck Hot Rod Academy is set for noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the school, 16319 Smokey Point Blvd. The event features a car show, live music, food and a raffle. More information about the academy and how to donate to the cause is available at www.pilchuckhotrodacademy.org.
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