Piedmont teens build tiny homes
By Lou Fancher
After a 10-day summer service trip during which Piedmont Community Service Crew members worked to build tiny homes for those in need, 14- and 15-year-old Stephanie Lee and Darcy McKee recall the journey’s greatest challenges.
In addition to daily temperatures that peaked one day at 95 degrees at the Medford, Oregon, worksite there were greater issues, such as small flaws in building designs that forced “on-the-spot” solutions; mastering power tools; and the constant need to replace drill bits that succumbed quickly to tough steel tubing.
Also, when preparing meals for guests at project host organization Rogue Retreat’s shelter, there was the filling for vegetable lasagna that involved two-and-a-half “chaotic and messy hours” and ultimately tasted fine but “looked like baby food,” Lee said.
“We made garlic bread at least three times and had a few arguments over the best technique,” McKee said.
For Ken Li, who 20 years ago founded the youth-led Piedmont Community Service Crew (PCSC) as part of the Piedmont Council Boy Scouts of America and continues to helm the roughly 100 members who range from ages 14 to 21 and are mostly from Piedmont High School, there were these and other problems.
“Teenagers like to sleep late in the morning and stay up late at night,” Li said. “Because of the heat, we wanted the six work days to go from 8 to 3. We learned getting teens up and on-site at 8 a.m. was a huge push.”
The PCSC encourages youth development and leadership skills through a variety of social and community programs. These have historically included renovating homes in collaboration with Rebuilding Tougher Oakland and local trail and lake maintenance.
Also included are planning, cooking and serving meals for at-risk or unhoused adults and teens at Bay Area food banks and shelters; a tutoring program with teens working with elementary school students; and annual events such as preparing Piedmont’s July Fourth pancake breakfast.
Summer service trips that began in 2016 have included working with people with disabilities at a school in Bangalore, India, and renovating a house nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Two trips, to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Appalachian region, were scuttled by the pandemic.
Li, an engineer by profession, says that this year a friend and fellow engineer who had volunteered with the PCSC previously and had relocated to Oregon contacted him.
“David (Nilson) was looking for an organization similar to ours, and it turned out I was looking for a summer project for the crew.”
Nilson had come upon a dormant tiny house project and prefabricated donated kits with the materials to build 11 tiny homes. It was a project with Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit organization that offers a number or services to homeless and unsheltered people in southern Oregon.
“It was stalled a few years ago with only one house partly completed. We inherited it and partnered with the local Medford Rotary Club, who did the technical logistics,” says Li.
The trips always include travel and work days but also opportunities for socializing, sightseeing and exploring the local culture, people and natural environment. Lee says that despite unappealing jobs like grating six blocks of cheese for pasta white sauce and contending with burnt garlic bread and mushy lasagna (that was well received and which only she describes as “sadly mediocre for the amount of effort we put into it”), making meals was a trip highlight because it resulted in “smiles, laughter and fun.”
To keep spirits up when hot weather dampened motivation, Lee says she told jokes and encouraged people to find new tasks to stimulate themselves. At Rogue Retreat’s shelter, she says she saw young children with their parents.
“It broke my heart knowing they were growing up in a small warehouse cramped with beds, with no privacy to have those small, intimate family moments with their parents and siblings. It made me so glad to know the houses I was helping to build could be their future homes — places where they could spend time making endless memories with their families. I’m pleased with the results of our hard work and think that every minute of effort we put into this project really shows,” Lee says.
McKee says her favorite moments occurred while whitewater rafting and hiking along the Rogue River. She made efforts to connect with team members she knew less well by initiating conversations and pool, board and card games.
“Taboo was definitely our favorite,” McKee recalls. She, like Lee, was struck by what she observed at the shelter.
“I remember seeing a warehouse room filled with beds in rows. I hadn’t previously considered how much of a luxury privacy is, and I’m glad the houses we helped build will one day provide it.”
Li says some kids show instinctive leadership skills while others respond to coaching. He says that, as has happened in the past, he saw teens during the trip with exceptional engineering skills develop new leadership capabilities.
“Whenever one kid shows some capability, I try to get them to move into leadership,” Li said. “In general, this generation of teens don’t do a lot of hands-on activities. As a kid, I used to play in the woods, do electronics, build things.
“Engineering and cooking are rewarding for them because they see immediate tactile results. It gives them power. They see they can make something and it’s not that hard. It’s fun to see them learn how to hammer a nail, operate an electric drill, stay balanced on a ladder while staying safe.”
Li says current PCSC members “lost” some of their in-person high school years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They missed out on this kind of immersive, live-together trip. When a group begins to click, they make jokes and bond. The more I plug them in, the better the group is. The shy kid who is competent can end up by their senior year to be group president. They evolve into confidence and leadership, and anyone can fit in.”
Among the impressions they anticipate will last longest is that age should never be a limiting factor and the power of youth-led programs like the PCSC.
“As long as you’re determined, you can learn and do anything you put your mind to, not matter your age,” says Lee. “This trip has inspired me to motivate other youth in my communities to participate in activities that they may deem too complicated or out of their comfort zone.”
“One thing I will take away from the trip is that there are a lot of people in the world doing something to aid people in their communities,” she said. “I was surprised by how many other groups and individuals of all different ages were at the work site with us, even if only for a short time.”