For the last three years, Kelly Bolender has been teaching a “Building Community” class for students at Kopachuck Middle School, combining traditional shop class skills of woodworking and building with business skills that connect students with community members.
“I get asked to do a lot of different projects,” Bolender said. “I brainstormed and thought, ‘Why don’t the kids do these?’”
At the beginning of every year, Bolender presents the class with a list of projects and lets students decide which ones fall within what they consider their community, and which projects they consider most important to be completed.
“I try to let them find their passion,” he said. “Their goal is to exceed expectations. They don’t want (their projects) to look like something middle school students created.”
The Building Community class is available to Kopachuck students on an application basis, requiring them to identify their skills and show a desire to learn and be engaged. The class has completed several projects over the past three years, but one of the longest projects is also one of the biggest and is finally nearing completion: construction of a sign for Voyager Elementary.
Grace Rosing, 14, Laura Nelson, 14, and Katie Mandarino, 13, are three of the students on the Voyager sign project who continued to come to Kopachuck through the summer to finish the project.
“We really want to see it finished and not passed on to another class,” Grace said.
Katie agreed: “We’ve been with the project since the beginning.”
Laura and her mother first noticed that Voyager Elementary, next door to Kopachuck, did not have a sign facing the road.
“We wanted people to realize there’s a school there,” Laura said.
She brought the project to the class at the beginning of the 2015 school year and the trio has been working on it ever since, along with fellow students Justin Rowntree, Izzy Boyle, Tyler Meyer, Kiera Hannan and Sydney Wright.
The sign is made from 4-by-7-foot cedar boards and will stand 7 feet tall when it’s erected outside of the school. Materials for the sign were obtained using a grant from The Rotary Club of Gig Harbor.
The sign was handpainted by Laura, Grace and Katie, and waterproofed using log oil.
Laura has been in the Building Communities class since the class began three years ago, while Grace just finished her second year. Katie will be entering her third year this fall. Laura and Grace will be moving on to Gig Harbor High School this fall and Katie will continue on to eighth grade at Kopachuck.
Kopachuck Principal Heidi Fedore says Bolender is the perfect teacher to lead the class.
“The main thing about that class is that he is almost like an advisor,” she said. “He’s a patient man. He brings out the best in kids.”
The commitment the students have to the class and the project can be seen in their dedication to continuing the projects over the summer, Fedore said.
“I think the fact that they came in over their summer and wanted to be here … that to me speaks to their altruism and pride,” she said.
Other projects the class has completed includes physical therapy equipment for the Peninsula School District, hall passes for Kopachuck, picnic tables for the Rotary Dog Park and more than 200 key fobs for the CAPE event, with student names engraved on the wood.
“This is my favorite class. They make it fun to come to work. They inspire me,” Bolender said. “That’s what’s so inspiring about this (class), not only the kids but the way the community steps up.”
Katie will be working with Patrick Gillespie, director of facilities for the Peninsula School District, this fall on obtaining permits and locating the exact spot to place the Voyager Elementary sign.
Though they’ll be in high school, Grace and Laura will be keeping an eye on the project they spent two years constructing.
“I want to see this finished and I want to see it up. I’m excited for it,” Laura said.