Carmen grew up watching her dad work as a car mechanic. She would go with him and watch and learn as he fixed cars. Carmen quickly discovered that she loved learning how things work, as well as working with her hands to build or repair things.
By the time she began high school, she started looking for classes that lined up with these interests. There were no car-related mechanics classes, but she did hear about another option that sounded intriguing: a construction class in which students built an entire house. And the more she considered it, the more she wanted to give it a try.
“As a woman, I want to know how to build stuff. That way when I get my own house, or if I want to build my own house, I’ll know the basics of it,” Carmen said.
Rockford Public Schools has been partnering with Habitat a handful of years now to provide students like Carmen with a unique hands-on learning experience, and to empower local Habitat homebuyers on their journey to homeownership. This year, Guilford High School students worked on their seventh Habitat home, and East High School students built their second home.
Carmen is now a Senior at Guilford High School. This was her second year in construction classes, and her first year actually building a house. She described how this year, she and classmates showed up day after day, in the rain, snow and wind, to build the home. She said that some of the skills she enjoyed learning were hanging drywall, installing windows, and (her personal favorite) using a nailgun.
“It’s kind of scary at first, but it’s pretty fun,” she said with a smile.
As she reflects on all that she learned this year, Carmen feels confident in her construction abilities.
“I pretty much do know how to build a house for myself,” she said, also describing how she feels equipped to make home repairs and upkeep.
These practical skills will also translate into a career for Carmen. She is interested in going to trade school or getting an engineering degree, and her experience in her construction classes is invaluable.
“It gets me ready for my future,” she said.
Though as a freshman, it would have been hard for Carmen to picture building an entire home, she feels very proud as a senior.
“Wow. I’ve made big moves, you know?” Carmen said.
It’s taken a ton of work to be a part of these courses, but for Carmen, every minute held value.
“It’s totally worth it,” she said. “It’s worth it because you get to know people— I love my crew. And we’re providing for another family and helping the community out, and it feels good.”
“I recommend [this course] if you want to learn something about yourself, build a house, and make memories,” she said.
O’Ryan is one of Carmen’s classmates. He’s a Junior at Guilford High School, and he’s been taking construction classes for three years.
“Freshman year, I started learning measurements and doing a bit of shop work back at the school. Sophomore year, we started building walls for this house, and we learned a lot of skills doing that. And now junior year, we’re building a house,” he said.
Similar to Carmen, O’Ryan also considers these courses to be stepping stones toward his future. He’s fairly certain he want to work in construction.
“I like working with my hands. This class is going to help me in so many ways to try to get into a trade out of high school,” he said. “[This opportunity] helps people with problem-solving, teamwork, and working with eachother. Like I said, it helps with building your skills a lot and helps you get a good job by getting you into the union and the trades.”
O’Ryan joked that that the most difficult part of construction class is trying to hit a stud, but he had far more to say about what he loved about the course. He absolutely loves working with his classmates, having fun, and laughing with them.
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned is working as a team. You can’t really build a whole house by yourself– you have to work with each other, problem solve with each other. This is a lot of teamwork,” he said. The results of that teamwork are incredibly rewarding.
“In my head I’m just like, ‘we really just built that’. It warms my heart that we know that we did a lot of work in this house. We put a lot of time into it, and made it everything that it’s supposed to be,” O’Ryan said.
Mark Anderson, the construction teacher at Guilford High School, said that even though the pandemic had a large effect on these students, they have been incredibly resilient and ready to rise to the challenge of building a house. Before learning on the build site, a handful of students had never even used tools because they had taken their introductory classes online. Many students have even realized that they love construction more than they thought they would.
For many students, the gratification of working on something so tangible becomes motivating in a very different way from the traditional classroom setting.
“If they see what they did, and it’s good, and they keep moving, then they kind of quickly build their self-confidence. If you’re in a classroom, they don’t see that until they’re out of high school, or even out of college a lot of times,” Mark said.
Mark shared that for awhile there has been a desire in Rockford to bring back the trades and help young people grow in their connection to the trades. As the partnership between Habitat and Rockford Public Schools has grown over time, students now have a resource and a path to be able to make this goal a reality.
“For a lot of [my students], this gives them a reason to come to school. For some of them, this is the only class they enjoy. For a few of them, it’s going to be their future, so it’s preparing them for something for the rest of their life in a way that schools don’t normally do,” Mark said.
Last week, the completion of the 2022 Guilford and East builds were recognized with two dedication ceremonies. Students from each build, teachers, Habitat volunteers, and even some Habitat homebuyers gathered together to admire the students’ work and celebrate this amazing milestone. The good that comes from this partnership is visible and tangible. In the words of Mark Anderson:
“I see the good in this program every day.”