Story by Scott Stowell
Photos by John Ratzloff
A pilot program that began two years ago at the Steger Wilderness Center has become a foundation and training ground for carpentry education, self-reliance and community. A crew of adult construction students from Summit Academy arrived at the center in July and a second team came in August for hands-on experience as part of their 20-week curriculum.
Summit Academy instructor Beth Halverson led the week-long training programs for both crews. She explained the original program began as a collaboration between Will Steger and Summit Academy President Louis King. The first project involved constructing a cabin at the Wilderness Center. When it was completed, she and Steger liked the result so much they continued the program.
But rather than build more cabins, students now engage in a variety of maintenance projects to upgrade the grounds and refine carpentry skills. Projects included roofing, decking, woodshop work and detailing railings. The hands-on component of their curriculum had only begun two weeks before they arrived at the Wilderness Center. Halverson said some students had used carpentry tools before their schooling at Summit Academy, while others didn’t have a lick of practice.
She noted that the overall experience teaches students a different way of working with raw materials and offers a better appreciation of carpentry itself. It’s on-the- job training like a typical day at a job site. Plus, working in a natural setting creates awareness of waste within the ecosystem.
Toward the end of their classroom education, students are also taught how to write resumes and cover letters. What’s more, Summit Academy brings in contractors to conduct mock interviews with the students.
All of the students participating in projects this summer live in the Twin Cities area. Some had never experienced outdoor life. Halverson called that opportunity a fantastic bridge between
urban and rural. It ran the gamut from the beauty of pristine wilderness to a violent wind storm. She’s found that when students return to the city and other Summit Academy students ask about the Wilderness Center, those who participated don’t hold back.
“Chests were pumped out,” she said. “They couldn’t talk enough about it.”
Loretta “Rainey” Lott, 38, is originally from the south side of Chicago and now lives in St. Paul. Until she enrolled at Summit Academy, she had no construction experience. Until she arrived at the Wilderness Center, she had never been camping, fished or used an outhouse other than in a public park. Table saws, routers and recycled two-by- fours were on her to-do list at the Wilderness Center. She fashioned replacement spindles for railings at the center.
“Bringing that wood back to life, that was amazing to me,” she said. “Being able to see my work, I’m proud of that.”
She also knew very little about Will Steger. According to Lott, she was used to a fast life, living in the city, not even subconsciously caring about environmental concerns and her impact on it. Since her time at the Wilderness Center, she’s questioned herself. “What could I do as an individual to at least be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem?”
Gabe Corbesia, 35, lives in Minneapolis. His only prior experience in construction came when he was a kid and helped his dad who was a carpenter. But he said he didn’t remember much of what he learned. He’s also camped a little, but not like at the Wilderness Center. That alone has been a bonding experience with his classmates.
“Working with them and having to take a bath in a lake… they haven’t done it either. That brought us closer,” he said.
According to Halverson, exposure to teamwork and instilling a work ethic is perhaps the biggest benefit students derive from the Wilderness Center. It’s another bridge with far-reaching effects.
“It leads to their families. It leads to their friends,” she said. “There’s some beauty that’s
happening with people working together as one, as opposed to separating themselves.”
Lott described the experience as one big family. “I love that feel of it… Everybody is
approachable,” she said and added, “I can’t learn enough here. I need more time. I have to come back.”
Corbesia explained he’s made significant changes to turn his life around. His past included unproductive time mired in drugs. But he’s cleaned up and said the hands-on training at the Wilderness Center will help him attain his goals of union work in construction, and peace and stability in his personal life.
Lott said she never envisioned herself going into the construction field. However, her reasons for attending Summit Academy extend beyond carpentry. She’s started the “Bigger than You” foundation. It’s an advocacy nonprofit against gun violence with a focus on misled teens. Her proposed court divergence program includes teaching the construction trade to troubled youth. Eventually she hopes to purchase property as a site for their hands-on training like she’s received at the Wilderness Center. She’s closely observing Summit Academy as a curriculum model.
Summit Academy President Louis King said the school’s mission is to help people get the skills, education and social networks they need to enter the economic mainstream. The partnership with the Steger Wilderness Center gets students out of the “concrete jungle,” helps the environment and allows them to practice their craft.
“We believe the best social services program in the world is a job,” King said.
For more information on Summit Academy visit online at saoic.org.