CASPER, Wyo. — The 1965 El Camino's belly sat empty.
In a Casper garage lined with antique license plates, hubcaps and a Route 66 wall clock, mentors wheeled an engine hoist over to the car, an engine dangling from its top.
Two boys pumped the hoist's lever, lowering the engine into the bare body.
"I think that's pretty good, guys," said mentor Dale Zimmerle. "Way to go there."
The engine hovered. Slowly, the four mentors and three mentees shimmied the engine into place.
"Alright, guys. That engine has to be right smack in the center," said mentor Jerry Knight.
"Everybody watch your fingers."
The engine danced. Hoist up, hoist down. Engine tilted, engine straight.
Until: "Let's try this one more time," Knight said.
They lifted the engine once more, lowered it, jiggled it and, finally, bolted it into place.
Sometime soon, Knight hopes before winter, this car will purr. All of its parts will be in place, and a sharp streak of red paint down its white body will make the El Camino pop.
The mentors and mentees worked on the engine in early September in Knight's garage as part of a new program created by Highland Park Community Church. "Pop in the Shop — Mentoring with Motors" partners boys from single-parent homes with volunteer male mentors who work with them in the shop and in turn serve as role models, imparting strong moral values and Biblical teachings, Knight said.
The boys, ages 7 to 17, get the chance to learn about vehicle building and repair, which can help them develop a hobby or potential future career.
"We're trying to let them understand they are loved," Knight said.
Rehabbed vehicles from the 1980s to more recent years will be donated to single moms in need, and older antique vehicles will be sold to raise funds for the program.
The nonprofit originated with Knight and began about three months ago. At first, he wanted to start a service that would provide oil changes to single moms and widows. Then he met Scott MacNaughton, who runs the Lander-based Fathers in the Field. The faith-based program mentors fatherless boys through the outdoors.
"His program spoke to me," Knight said.
Knight referenced the statistics on the Fathers in the Field website: Fatherless boys account for 71 percent of high school dropouts and 85 percent of incarcerated young men. Conversely, mentored children get better grades and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, Knight said.
Knight has worked on old cars his whole life, from a 1955 Thunderbird to a 1973 Ford pickup. He did it with his father and grandfather and then taught his son. A program that mentored young men through car mechanics seemed like the right fit.
So far, about 20 boys and 27 potential mentors have shown interest.
All mentors go through a background check. Interested young men complete applications and interviews. Although Knight asks participants for a one-year commitment, the program is designed to last for three. The idea is to give the boys a range of experiences, from antique cars the first year to more complex vehicles with computer chips the second. "Pop in the Shop" teaches mentees the ropes, from wiring to dent repair to painting and detail work.
Participants are also asked to attend church — any church — twice a month, Knight said.
"They need to look at the good side of life," he said.
Mentors and mentees work on donated vehicles, and so far 15 cars and trucks have been given to the program. "Pop in the Shop" will offer rewards to hard-working participants, such as trips to the racetrack and the chance to earn their own tools. Mentees also will participate in public events, like the free oil change for single moms day offered one Saturday last month.
Knight would like to see the program expand in coming years, possibly to offer scholarships.
By the time the boys were an hour into their engine installation last month, their hands and cheeks were covered in a layer of car grime.
Already they had learned some lessons:
Take your time and go slow.
The radiator is located at the front of the car to keep the engine cool.
Nothing works right the first time when it comes to cars. If it does, you probably did something wrong.
Be careful not to drop a wrench when someone's working underneath the vehicle. That would, well, hurt.
For Dawson Roscoe, 14, the engine installation was his first time at "Pop in the Shop." He's the youngest in his group of friends, he said, and they're all learning to drive. Roscoe wanted to be ready. "Pop in the Shop" could help him learn the basics, so he can help his friends with oil changes and dents.
Mentor Stephen Schaffer, there with his grandson, grew up with a father who worked as a parts man. Schaffer loved cars and tinkered with any vehicle he could find, even tractors.
Schaffer said he hopes the program gives participants a strong set of guideposts by which to live their lives.
"Who's going to teach them values if we don't?" Schaffer said. ". A child with values will amount to something."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com