By Abra Bennett
Writer in residence, Walla Walla Community College
If you’re going to spend a year building a house by hand, it helps to know that it was for an exemplary cause. That’s the case with the houses that students in WWCC’s carpentry program build for the Blue Mountain Action Council’s Carrie Ave. project.
Each year the program’s students build a house from the ground up. Years ago these were large, upscale houses. But for the past two years WWCC has built smaller, affordable homes in partnership with the Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC).
“There are many benefits to the partnership between BMAC and the WWCC carpentry program,” says BMAC’s Pat Adams, who is also a WWCC graduate. “The biggest benefit being neighborhood improvement while providing affordable housing to the community.”
The Carrie Ave. neighborhood has been a “pet project” of BMAC’s for several years, according to Adams. With the help of the non-profit Pomegranate Center, BMAC has been able to add a park and a community center to the neighborhood, as well as three homes, two of which were built by WWCC carpentry students. Today, one of those houses is a group home for low-income people with mental and physical disabilities.
“I felt great about building for a charity organization like BMAC,” says Shane Luke, who graduated from the program in June of this year. He helped build both of the Carrie Ave. houses and now works at Dovetail Studio in Walla Walla, which specializes in custom furniture, cabinets, interior remodels, and functional art pieces.
“My father was a carpenter my entire life, doing general contracting,” he recalls. “Growing up I thought I would never be a carpenter. I saw him break his back all those years and I didn’t see any reason why I would want to do that.”
But after spending five years as a wind turbine inspector, the company he worked for went bankrupt and Luke decided to try college. “When I found out about the WWCC carpentry program I knew it was something I could focus on and take seriously,” he says.
“At first I had a hard time being a student, because I knew I could go right to work doing construction and making money,” he continues. “But I got a lot of financial help from the college, which upped my spirits. And I even loved my homework, and learning all the technical things.”
Another student who loves the program is Clint Beck, who will graduate later this year. In fact, he loves it enough to commute 57 miles each way from his home in Hermiston, without ever missing a day of school or being late to class.
Beck is a non-traditional student with an extensive background in the building industry. “My Dad was the biggest builder in eastern Oregon when I was growing up,” he says. “So I always thought I would be a builder. My Dad built 109 houses, and I worked on most of them, cleaning up job sites, framing houses, and putting on siding. So when I was 18 and the business went bankrupt my dreams of taking it over were dashed.”
Beck went on to establish his own contracting business in Louisiana. But in 2008, when the economy crashed, his business too went bankrupt.
In 2010 he, his wife, and four sons moved back to Hermiston. He worked at the Boardman Tree Farm for five years, doing security and driving fork lift. On night shifts he walked the perimeter, picking up enough cans to earn him $2000, which he invested in two building lots, planning for the future.
Then the farm was sold and the employees were laid off. But because of a NAFTA certification that the jobs had been lost to overseas companies, Beck was eligible for two years of re-training, with unemployment, mileage, and tuition paid for. Those resources allowed him to enroll in the carpentry program.
Although he had a head start in the building trade, has already obtained his Oregon contractor’s license, and serves as a mentor to younger students in his class, Beck emphasizes that he still benefits from the program. “What I brought to this class was a lot of knowledge about building,” he says. “But even though I built 30 houses and oversaw hundreds of guys doing that, I was really lacking in the hands-on. I wanted more working knowledge of framing, and doing the trim, and I got that here. I’m 48 and I’m still learning.”
Armando Maldonado is the instructor who has made all of this happen. He teaches his students everything from grading to laying the concrete foundation and sub-floor, to framing the walls, making the rough openings of the windows and doors, and setting the trusses.
“On a real-world job site you need to hurry up and get the job done,” Luke explains. “In the program you can cut three boards wrong until you get them right. We’re not under pressure, because we have a year to build a house, which is plenty of time to learn to do it right. That’s what I really loved about the program. And there couldn’t be a better instructor than Armando.”
Maldonado is known for being an exacting but patient teacher. “I like trying to help people, and encouraging them to be a better person in life. I do that as a teacher, as a volunteer firefighter, and as a Little League coach,” he says.
Maldonado does have a wish list. “If only someone would donate just one lot for us to build on and sell the house, after three to four years the program could be self-sustaining,” he adds wistfully.
For now, the program enjoys the benefits of building for BMAC. “The use of local sub-contractors and suppliers benefits the local economy,” Adams points out. “Many of these contractors donate time, materials, and speak or offer specific instruction to the students. Providing a quality education for future builders and business leaders of the community is very beneficial as well.”