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Nonprofit launches first student project to convert buses into homes for fire victims

Teacher John Eager helps students measure parts of the school bus. Eagar said he always wanted to convert a bus and is excited to do so while teaching students.(KTVL/Megan Willgoos)

The Almeda and Obenchain fires exacerbated the need for construction workers in Southern Oregon after burning over 2,800 structures. Talent Maker City (TMC), a nonprofit maker space, combined this need for workers and homes to develop what they're calling a first of its kind project.

"We've done some Google searches and can't find it anywhere at this scale where we're trying to coordinate multiple school districts," TMC Program Director Allison French said.

Students from Phoenix-Talent, Medford and Ashland School District and students from Armadillo Technical Institute are working together to convert two school buses into homes for fire survivor families. The buses were donated in December by Ashland Mayor Julie Akin's nonprofit, Schoolie Home Foundation.

"She reached out, and she had two buses that had been donated to her organization from the Ashland School District that were in various stages of disrepair and had been started on some projects," French said. "And she wanted to work with us to figure out a way to convert them to housing."

The nonprofits teamed up with the Southern Oregon Education Service District, where they got in touch with Construction Technology Education Teacher at South Medford High School, John Eagar. One of the school buses is parked outside his classroom, while the other is at TMC's space. Eager said he always wanted to convert a bus into a house and is thrilled that he gets to teach students to become successful construction workers at the same time.

"The construction industry is really hurting for young, fresh employees and next-generation business owners," Eager said. "We're excited to have them in our programs."

TMC Executive Director Ryan Wilcoxson said he has high hopes for the project but emphasized it is a pilot program. He said an entire curriculum was created between two buses that can be shared with other communities and impact more than just fire victims.

"This can then be disseminated anywhere throughout the country for other schools to do this, for other communities in need, whether it's in the wake of a disaster or to address homelessness, homelessness issues; we're also generating build plans that go along with the curriculum. Wilcoxson said.

South Medford students started working on the school bus the week of April 5 and plan to finish by the end of the school year in June. Senior Lily Owen is one of the students who signed up to convert the school bus and said although fun, some steps came unexpectedly.

"All the seats were basically rusted, so we had to cut every single seat out of here," Owen said. "There were tons of spiders, bees nests, and I do not do well with that, but you fight through it."

Owen said the hard work, plus all the spiders and bee nests, will be worth it in the end. She said she is excited to give the fully finished bus-converted home to a fire survivor family after seeing loved ones impacted themselves.

"My cousin's grandma, she lived out there, and my Uncle Pete lived out there in a mobile home, and they lost their mobile homes," Owen said. "It will probably make me tear up a little bit."

The project's estimated cost is $60,000 after factoring in costs for the buses, insurance, instructor fees, and curriculum. On top of this payment, nonprofit Project Youth Plus is paying every student for their work.

"They're having to show up like it's a job every day on time to work on the project," French said. "And they're learning job skills, not just construction skills and woodworking, but also employability skills like showing up on time, work ethic, attitude, all those things that we all want in good employees."

For more information or to donate visit the Talent Maker City's website and follow the link for the Bus Project.