Shea High students help build tiny home for homeless veterans

Shea High students help build tiny home for homeless veterans

Andy Cordeiro, left, a senior at Shea High School, and Kevin Cunha, director of CTE, career readiness and workforce development for the Center for Dynamic Learning, stand in front of the tiny home that Shea students are helping build for the Dare to Dream Ranch in Foster, which will house homeless veterans. The house is currently located outside Jenks Middle School in Pawtucket. (Breeze photo by Melanie Thibeault)

PAWTUCKET – Once complete, a 40-foot environmentally friendly tiny home will be moved from Pawtucket to the Dare to Dream Ranch in Foster, where it will provide shelter for homeless veterans working to learn skills to find jobs and permanent housing.

Since school started last September, 30 students at Shea High School in Pawtucket, divided into two groups, have been working on turning a former metal shipping container into a suitable living space, along with staff at Providence-based Center for Dynamic Learning, a nonprofit that “inspires youth to cultivate career readiness and workforce skills” through opportunities in STEAMM, or science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics and manufacturing.

The program, which has mostly taken place in person at Jenks Middle School, one of four schools in the district that was deemed safe to be open during the pandemic, has allowed students hands-on experience, from learning how to use hand and power tools to building doors, windows, and more from scratch.

“We teach them everything, every skill we can,” said Kevin Cunha, director of CTE, career readiness and workforce development for the Center for Dynamic Learning, which he and his wife Beth started in the early 2000s.

Each cohort meets for two four-hour sessions a week, Cunha said. Students are eligible to receive high school credits, as well as three college credits from Roger Williams University, and AED/CPR/first aid certification, several OSHA certifications, and more.

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Giovanni Santiago, a senior at Shea High School, said that the program has been great, both in terms of what he’s learned and in everybody working together. As far as hands-on training, he said he’s helped put the ceiling together, install new tile floors, and place solar panels on the roof. “It’s been a thoughtful learning experience,” he said, adding that these skills will be useful for when he owns his own house one day.

Going into his senior year, Santiago said he was nervous about virtual learning and was pleased with the opportunity to do this hands-on work. “I thank (school leaders) for being able to put us through this program.”

Building the house for a veteran means a lot, too, he said, noting that this is the students’ way of being able to pay them back for serving our country.

Another senior at Shea, Andy Cordeiro, agreed. “The appeal is helping other people,” he told The Breeze, adding that he encourages other students to take part in the program if they have the opportunity in the future.

For Cordeiro, this program motivated him. While he’s missed more than 200 days of high school, on purpose, he’s gone to this program every day, he said.

Cunha has reported seeing significant growth in most of his students since the start of the program. He gives assessments at the beginning, middle, and end of the program to see how students have grown, and he said his Shea students are up 32.5 percent up in math skills, 33.4 percent in literacy and English, and 47 percent in technical knowledge. He’s also seen vast improvements in their public speaking skills, he said.

“I’m very proud,” he said, adding that these two cohorts are the best he’s had.

In her 31 years as an educator, Jacqueline Ash, principal at Shea High School, said this program is one of the best she’s seen, adding that it goes beyond academics and 21st-century skills. “This fuses the school … and humanity,” she said. “They’re learning to give back. … We need more kindness in this world.”

As of last week Cunha said they were approximately 65 percent of the way finished with some plumbing work still to do. The house, which is 40 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet, includes a kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom space as well as French doors.

While students have been learning virtually for the past month, Ash noted that as of Monday they were allowed to return to the program in person at Jenks.

The plan is to finish the home by the beginning of spring, at which point they’ll move it to Foster, Cunha said. The home will be completely off the grid, using solar panels (2500 watts) and wind turbines (1500 watts) to produce energy. There will also be rain water collectors that can absorb 100 gallons, a composting toilet, and a 15-foot-by-8-foot greenhouse on the roof, he said. The home is also outfitted so that the water won’t freeze even if the outside temperature is 20 below zero, he said, and it will be ADA accessible.

Primary funders of the program are the Conboy Foundation, the Nordson Foundation, and Lowe’s Home Improvement, he said. Ash added that the school has had to pay approximately $25,000 for the program as well.

A big fan of Pawtucket, Cunha said he’d like to partner with the district indefinitely. “I fell in love with the school district. They have been magnificent,” he said. “Nobody has treated us the way that Pawtucket has.”

Both over the summer and next school year, Shea students are expected to have the opportunity to work on more tiny homes for Dare to Dream, as well as some for House of Hope CDC in Pawtucket, an organization that provides support to homeless individuals. Through a connection, Cunha said he’s spoken with the lieutenant governor in Hawaii who is asking for some houses to be made and sent there.

“I want our kids not only to build tiny houses for their own community; I want them to know they’re making change in the world,” he said.

Ash noted that they’re working to make the program part of one of a cluster of pathways, including engineering, manufacturing, and industrial technology, at Shea.

One lesson Cunha said he tries to instill in his students is the importance of quality work. “These (homes) are for our heroes,” he said. “They need the best of the best.”

Karen Dalton, founder and executive vice president of nonprofit Dare to Dream Ranch, located at 12 Snagwood Road in Foster, said the first tenant of the tiny home will be a veteran who volunteers at the ranch and is currently looking for affordable housing. Once he saves up money and can buy his own place, another veteran will be able to move into the space.

Dalton said it was Cunha’s idea to build these tiny homes for the veterans. Cunha’s goal is to build five, he said.

The ranch offers alternative therapy for veterans and their families who are struggling with emotional challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and more, according to its website. Services include equine therapy, yoga, horticulture therapy, nutritional cooking, woodworking, fly tying, career coaching, and more.

The living room space of the tiny home that 30 Shea High School students are helping to build for homeless veterans.
Giovanni Santiago, a senior at Shea High School, is cutting wood as part of a project to help build a tiny home for homeless veterans.
The tiny home that 30 Shea High School students are helping to build for homeless veterans. (Breeze photo by Melanie Thibeault)