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Constructing Bright Futures — One House at a Time

Updated: Jul 25

Construction Pathway students wearing construction vests stand on front porch of new house

It’s been an incredible journey of almost three years since ground was broken on the first of four houses on Page Street East in the Westside neighborhood of St. Paul, less than a mile from GAP School. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and construction supply shortages, the build project has yielded remarkable results. On May 24th, the completed project was celebrated with an open house event that saw student participants, project instructors, community members, project construction partners, and local state legislators and representatives gather together as one.

Through GAP School’s YouthBuild St. Paul Westside Construction Career Pathway, participants build and/or renovate housing for low-income families in our community while gaining experience in a wide variety of construction skills such as carpentry, electrical, framing, insulation, painting, reading blueprints, and environmentally-sustainable construction practices. Students in the Construction Pathway are generally English Language Learners, and many come from refugee camps in Thailand or Myanmar. The language barrier between students and instructors can be significant, but the students are focused on hands-on learning opportunities.

The plans for these houses began back in 2016 when Change Inc. purchased 4 lots on Page Street East on the Westside of St. Paul. The initial plan was to build multi-family housing through either duplexes, rowhomes, or townhomes that would boast green building practices (i.e., energy efficient design, solar-powered chimney, heavy insulation, shared green space, etc.).

The design of the new construction of the single-family home worksite was created to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification eligible and is expected to earn Platinum LEED status by August of this year. Project leaders worked closely with the U.S. Green Building Council in Minnesota to both educate program participants as well as work towards gaining LEED certification.

GAP School leadership worked with architects from MSR Design, who generously offered pro bono design services to create the architectural plans. After exploring spacing for the various types of homes and St. Paul zoning requirements, it was decided that the best option would instead be to build multiple single-family homes.

3 students standing in the snow in front of a frame of a house

Over 120 student participants were trained over the course of the build to execute all construction techniques required to complete new construction of the house, except for HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems. However, students had the opportunity to shadow these professionals on site. Of particular importance to construction contractors and apprenticeship partners, work readiness skills were integrated into on-site construction training and emphasized daily by worksite trainers with immediate feedback to students.

The house was built with the assistance of licensed contractors and construction partners; however, the students did a majority of the work themselves after being taught by GAP School’s Construction instructors, Tony Zahradka, Craig Wagenknecht, Beya Mi, and Sophan Nhean. Generous community partners for this build include Johnstone Supply, the Electrical Association, 3M, Pella, Kohler, and AFK Group.

With the house completed, student participants, instructors, community members, and local representatives and legislators gathered at the home to celebrate with an open house event. Students gave tours of the home and shared memories and lessons from their building experiences.

Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, was in attendance and made remarks to the crowd. Along with Senator Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, Norris was a lead sponsor of a bill that will double Minnesota’s state portion of YouthBuild funding from $1 million to $2 million per year for the next two years. GAP School alumni, Hser Pwe and Aung Myo Way, testified during the legislative session about YouthBuild’s impact on their life and greatly aided in convincing lawmaker’s decision-making. This is a huge win for not only GAP School students, but all YouthBuild USA programs across the country.

"My life has changed so much since I joined YouthBuild. Today I make more than $40/hour as a Journeyman in the union, and I own my own home. I owe all my success to the YouthBuild program and I hope you will support them with increased funding for other young people like me." -Aung Myo Way, 2015 GAP School YouthBuild Graduate

Construction Pathway student stands in front of a microphone speaking to a crowd

The first Page Street home went on the market June 1st and is listed by former GAP School graduate, Boe Boe, a realtor with Partners Realty. Boe emigrated to Minnesota from a refugee camp in Thailand, and became a student at GAP School in 2010, the year the first four Karen (pronounced kuh-REn) students enrolled. The home is listed as a low-income property to be sold to households that meet the income eligibility criteria.

With the first of four homes complete, it’s almost time to move onto the next. Ground is expected to break on the second lot this summer. It’s clear to see that participants are not merely constructing a house; they are also building bridges within their community on the Westside of St. Paul. The YouthBuild St. Paul Westside program run by GAP School emphasizes the importance of giving back and making a positive impact. By engaging in construction projects such as the Page Street build, student participants acquire valuable life skills, gain confidence, learn the value of hard work and social responsibility, and become active contributors to their communities.

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