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Student carpenters swing hammers for public good

Kylie Dolan, pictured here with instructor Jon Skow, is one of the young ladies involved in the YouthBuild program.1 / 3
YouthBuild students framing a structure at the football field for the Relay for Life.2 / 3
Students at work on Perham YouthBuild projects.3 / 3

Students have been swinging hammers on some interesting and challenging projects, through the YouthBuild program at Perham High School's Alternative Learning Center and building trades classes.

A sluggish economy has shifted the direction of the program, from new construction of low income housing to renovations, remodeling and work on public and non-profit buildings.

By working on public projects, these student builders are reminiscent of young workers of another economically stressed era: The Great Depression, when young people found employment with public projects through Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

"The economy being the way it is, there is no sense building spec houses when contractors are having a hard time moving them," said Jon Skow, industrial tech and construction teacher at the Perham schools. "Our goal isn't to make money and compete with private builders."

Over the past 17 years, YouthBuild has built 30 houses in the area, through collaborations with the the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and Habitat for Humanity. But with tight credit and a slow economy, there are too many vacant houses on the market.

"Spec houses are tough in a spooky economy," said Skow.

Instead of new housing, the YouthBuild and trade students have been doing public service projects-ranging from renovation of a storage building at the city cemetery to work on the classic Grand View Heights Ballroom at the Historical Society's Pioneer Village.

Skow said the ballroom project was especially interesting because it was an exercise in problem-solving. To prop up the sagging roof on the old resort ballroom, students needed to deploy math and even structural engineering tactics.

"When the kids have to think outside the box, outside of the normal parameters of new construction, it is a real learning experience," agreed Fred Sailer, director of the Alternative Learning Center in Perham, which serves students from not only Perham, but surrounding districts such as New York Mills, Frazee and Pelican Rapids. On average, there are a dozen ALC students involved in the YouthBuild program.

The Grand View Heights ballroom also needs new shingles and roof work. This is a sizeable project, which may be done next spring, if the Historical Society is able to raise funds for the materials.

Students built a 12 by 16 foot storage shed for Relay for Life on the Meinhover Field site. The building was not a school project, so materials were paid for in full by donors connected to the Relay for Life.

The building serves as storage for Relay for Life materials, said Ron Anderson, one of the Relay leaders.

"We had the money for materials, and we hoped to find a way to build it as inexpensively as possible," said Anderson. "Jon and his crew basically built it as volunteers...It's a good exercise in community service."

Private donors paid for the storage shed materials, so no money came from the school budget or from the American Cancer Society, noted Anderson.

Other projects on the horizon include:

--A garage in northwest Perham, at a Housing and Redevelopment Authority house, was started last week.

--A park shelter for the city in the West Wind Addition has been completed.

--A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service interpretive center at Hamden Slough, north of Audubon. (See related story.)

The YouthBuild program is essentially year-round, noted Skow.

Industrial ed students work alongside the ALC students during the school year. During the summer, many of the students work 40 hours a week-under school staff supervision-for regular wages.

The Alternative Learning Center offers an education option for students who are not as successful in a conventional classroom environment.

"The ALC students are by no means bad kids, they just aren't geared for classroom learning," said Skow. "These are students who find that their niche, their best learning environment is working with their hands."

Meanwhile, traditional students in the building trades classes work for school credits. All of them gain valuable skills and work habits, said Skow.