60 years and 46 houses later: Successful program continues to build students’ hands-on experience in the trades

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WESTBROOK  — Students in the building trades program at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center were working last week on the roof of their latest house, the 46th constructed since the program started 60 years ago.

The house, at 33 Declaration Drive, is expected to be ready for sale at the end of the next school year. It is being built through the Rotary-supported program at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, a program launched in 1957 both as an educational opportunity for students and a way to give back to the community.

Henry Saunders, who has been a member of the Rotary Club of Westbrook-Gorham for more than 50 years, said while the students have taken charge of the construction, the club has overseen the finances behind the program, making it a win-win.

“It’s been a wonderful program all in all,” said Saunders, a 1946 Westbrook High School graduate. “It’s been a real contribution to the community, but also great educational opportunity. Kids are in the middle of it doing something practical.”

Dave Moon, who worked at the vocational center as an electrical engineer from 1974 to 2009 and oversaw the electrical work on 25 homes, is grateful to have been part of the program, as were his students.

He said he remembers countless students driving past the houses and showing their family members the work they had contributed. They took pride in their work and came motivated every day.

“I would implore you to continue doing this,” Moon told the Rotary members during a celebration of the program at the vocational center earlier this month. “It’s made a difference in a lot of lives.”

Carl Jensen, the first vocational director in Westbrook, started the program. An initial lack of funding didn’t deter him. According to the Westbrook Historical Society, “with no financial support forthcoming from the school budget, Jensen secured supplies, services, and financial aid from the local firms. More than 25 additional businesses contributed publicity, advisory and instructional aid. Local architects, plumbers, electricians and heating engineers volunteered to assist with supervision and instruction.”

The first home was constructed on land at 42 Libby Ave. that was donated by the Rotary club, which has actively supported the project ever since.

Those working on the home were held to a high regard and students in the high school’s home economics course handled decoration of the initial home and students in business course recorded construction costs.

“The quality of construction on this first home on Libby Avenue was high,” according to the historical society, “if mistakes were made, they were torn out and redone, under the watchful eye of job instructor Carl Robinson.”

The home was completed on schedule and was sold in the summer of 1958. The following year, students built a home across the street from the original site and over the years built more than 40 homes all over the city, including numerous residences on Dana and Roy avenues, Deer Hill Circle, as well as Lamb, Forest, Marrett and Stroudwater streets. Vocational students have also built homes for Gorham, Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Scarborough and Windham residents.

Between 1973 and 1978, the students constructed the Home and Family Center next to the high school, which served as vocational classroom space, but now is home to the Westbrook School Department. Students have also worked on other projects for the school district, including portable classrooms at Saccarappa.

Westbrook Regional Vocational Center Director Todd Fields said the program has changed over the years, but the mission – to give students a good hands-on learning experience – has remained the same. He said by building on-site, as opposed to in the classroom or in the parking lot behind the vocational center, students “get to experience everything people in these trades go through.”

The vocational offerings have changed over the years. Students enrolled in heavy machine operation and commercial drivers license programs now help with the site work and landscaping. Students once drafted plans for the homes through the drafting program, but that program has since been discontinued.

Work is now wrapping up on the ranch-style house at 33 Declaration Drive. The foundation was poured right after Christmas break and recentlythe 15 student carpenters worked putting up the roof trusses.

Megan Robichaud, a senior at Westbrook High School, said the program has showed her females are as capable as their male peers in terms of house construction.

“I’ve always loved to be hands-on and I love to build things, and because I did this, I could, later in life, go out, find a carpenter and go work for them,” Robichaud said.

Like Robichaud, junior Wyatt Fowler is taking part in the vocational center’s building trades curriculum for this first time. Fowler said he was inspired to take the course because there is a demand for individuals with experience in the trades. Fowler said he would like to continue pursuing construction after high school.

“It is not something I take lightly. This is my future and you might as well learn it while you are young so you can use it the rest of your life,” he said.

Fields said the rate at which these new homes have been built has  changed in more recent time.

“Originally we tried to do one house a year, but we found we were subbing  a lot of things out. Now it is a tw0-year program. The first year are are framing it and getting it weather tight and the second year, we are working on the inside, doing trim and cabinetry,” said Fields, who has been with the center for 30 years, including the last 17 as director.

Fields said the Realtors from the Rotary club work to sell the home at a fair market value. Proceeds from the house go to the club, which in turn, donates it back to the vocational program students in the form of scholarships or toolships. Last year, Rotary gave out $14,000 to vocational students.

The city, he said, has also been supportive of the program by setting aside lots for students to build new homes on.

Through the years, Judith Reidman has helped sell the homes and find new lots for the program.

“It has been a wonderful program. I have really enjoyed it,” she said.

“It’s oldest continually running program in the United States. There’s something to be said about the work being done here,” she added.

Rotary member Christine Johnson has been working to document the last 60 years and is looking for photographs, especially of the students working, and newspaper clippings to add to the club’s scrapbook, which chronicles the house-building.

“The game plan is to build off of what we have, so when we celebrate the 75th in 15 years, we’ll have built a few more homes and have better documentation,” she said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter: @mkelleynews

The first home students in the vocational program constructed was at 42 Libby Road in 1958. Since then, more than 45 homes have been constructed all over the city, including most recently on Dale Avenue.

The latest house is at the end of Declaration Drive. It is expected to be completed and put on the market next school year.

Westbrook High School junior Wyatt Fowler works on the roof of a house students are building at 33 Declaration Drive. Once finished, it will be the 46th house constructed in the city by students since the vocational center introduced a house-building program 60 years ago.

WRVC building trades instructor Kirk Nygren, left, works with Westbrook High School junior Jacob Garland on proper technique during work on the latest student-built house.

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