Gentlemen, start your engines

Sage Morris decided one day that it was possible to combine his passion for auto racing and religion, all while helping local youths stay out of trouble.

The result? Kids & Cars, Inc.

Morris is the founder and managing director of this fledgling program, which has been in existence for only a few weeks. About a dozen youths are participating in the workshop run out of the Shot Tower Recreation Center, Front and Carpenter streets. Three adults are on hand to assist them as they build radio-control race cars, which they enter in contests.

The youths eventually will learn to build and drive quarter-midget cars. Best of all, the kids earn money while they work.

Morris said he would like to enroll 20 to 50 more children and teens in the program. The organization has tried to recruit members by hanging posters, running newspaper ads and handing out flyers at the X Games.

Kids & Cars, Inc., is a nonprofit organization whose main objective is to "reduce the law-violating behavior of youth," according to a promotional flier.

There are practical reasons for creating a program that centers on race cars, Morris noted.

"I was involved in racing and saw that people in racing don’t use alcohol and don’t do drugs because if you do, you don’t do very well," he said.

Morris attempts to reinforce his message by providing positive role models to assist the children and by including Bible study in the program.

"Basically, our mission in Philadelphia is to target kids of single-parent households, which are the majority of households in Philadelphia," he said. "We target them to learn about tools to become skilled mechanics. There are about 12 million jobs that are available in the next five years for skilled mechanics, and there’s no way to fill them.

"There’s also 55,000 jobs open for auto tech, which pay between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, and they had a lot of problems filling them. So we target these markets to get those kids into those jobs."

Kids & Cars’ focus is on children from low-income and/or single-parent households, but Morris said all are welcome.

The youths get paid for participating in the workshop to prove that hard work really can pay off, the founder explained.

"We start out at minimum wage, but they work their way up, and the pay scale can go up to $15 or $20 an hour," Morris said.

Another key component of Kids & Cars is the focus on Christian values. Morris made Bible study an integral part of the program because he believes it will help the young people grow into productive members of the community. To achieve this goal, Morris is trying to surround the children with good adult role models, many from Christian backgrounds.

The youths are just building radio-control vehicles for now, but they could be racing quarter-midget cars in the fall, as soon as the program obtains insurance and permission from the city.

The participants already have entered their remote-control cars in several shows and competitions, such as Kids Day at Penn’s Landing and Sunoco Welcome America!’s Fourth of July celebration. Morris plans to further promote the program by setting up a demonstration team for radio-control monster trucks at events around the city, such as before the start of Phillies games or at parties at Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing.

"We have some other recreation centers that will be opening up [Kids & Cars programs] in the next month or two, right before school starts," he said. Because plans are not finalized yet, he declined to say which centers would host the program.

The participants at Shot Tower give Kids & Cars high marks.

Rakim Dublin and Kirk Hazel, both 10, agreed their favorite part of the program will come when they get to drive the cars.

Tony Galvan, 16, says he’s learned "that you win races by experience, not by how fast a car goes."

Bernardo Martinez, also 16, acknowledged he likes the program "because it keeps me out of the streets."

Kids & Cars, which holds its workshops Thursday afternoons, is looking to expand to Mondays and Wednesdays. Several area hobby shops, as well as a handful of remote-control car companies, are sponsoring the nonprofit. U-Haul has donated space and may collaborate on an activity, Morris said.

"This program is a great way for kids to learn about tools since all of the vocational programs were taken out of the public-school system," Morris said. "And this is a sport, so in order to understand your equipment, you might as well build it. We’ll be building some of our own equipment, and then everybody will have a chance to drive, and learn to race if they want to."

And of course, if all goes according to plan, all the drivers will finish first.

For more information on Kids & Cars, Inc., call the Shot Tower Recreation Center at 215-685-1592.