House of hope
Its dimensions are tiny. But its impact is huge.
Constructed this spring by FFA members in Greenville, Mo., the one-room, 6-x-12-foot building now shelters a homeless Army veteran who previously lived in a tent in East St. Louis. For him, the structure means a solid roof over his head. It means insulated protection from the elements. It means a soft place to lay his head.
More importantly, it means someone cares.
“What they built could actually save someone’s life,” said Steven Pace, a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain who leads an initiative to provide shelter, food, clothing and other necessities to homeless communities in the St. Louis area. “These young people learned how to build a structure, sure, but what’s even bigger is that they learned to give of themselves and take care of those in need. Hopefully, later in life, those lessons will transform into continued service.”
This is the second year in a row that the Greenville High School FFA chapter built a house for Pace’s ministry, Sheds for the Homeless, a grassroots effort he began as a way to help heal emotionally from a particularly traumatic military tour in Afghanistan. He met Greenville FFA Advisor Scott Payne, a fellow Army Reserve chaplain, during a 2017 conference at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the pair decided to work together on the project.
“I told Scott about what we were doing to help the homeless, and he asked if his kids could build something we could use,” Pace said. “I told him, ‘Yeah! It will be a whole lot better than anything we’re building.’ And it was. It was phenomenal.”
Payne said his agricultural students enthusiastically embraced the idea and so did the Wayne County community.
“I came back and told my FFA kids about it, and they immediately wanted to know what we could do to help,” Payne said. “We began to tinker with ideas and building plans. We talked to local businesses and organizations, and everyone came together fabulously last year. We got the materials donated and within just a matter of weeks we had the first little house built. I met up with Chaplain Pace and delivered it in February 2018.”
The recipients of last year’s house were a wheelchair-bound woman and her husband who were living in a homeless village of tents and plywood sheds that Pace and other volunteers had built in East St. Louis, just across the river in Illinois. That property was recently sold and the residents evicted. The FFA-built house was moved to another, undisclosed location and has new residents. The original couple who lived there is now in permanent housing, Pace proudly reports.
“The homeless are pretty transient,” he said. “We were able to finally get her on disability and from there get them into an apartment. All these shelters are temporary. Well, we’re hoping they are temporary. We don’t want them to live there forever. It’s just a matter of helping them survive the difficult times until they can get out and get on with their life.”
Wishing to remain anonymous, the recipient of this year’s FFA house has been living alone on a parcel of unused city property for more than two years. Pace said he hopes having a place to call his own may encourage the veteran to re-enter society.
“This gentleman, he wants to live there. Some of the homeless are like that,” Pace said. “I don’t know his circumstances or what happened to him after he got out of the military. We just want to take care of him. We’re taking him from sleeping on the ground to sleeping in a bed, which is a pretty big step. Maybe it will give him the courage to take the next step.”
In 2018, nearly 38,000 veterans were among America’s 553,000 homeless, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those numbers are what drew Payne and his students to the project.
“As a chaplain, I deal with soldiers with all kinds of issues,” Payne said. “Sadly, there are those who just have a difficult time reintegrating into society, especially combat soldiers, and a lot of them end up homeless as a result.”
The FFA construction project not only benefits the homeless, but it also teaches members practical skills and life lessons, said Payne, who joined the school staff in 2002 as industrial arts teacher. In 2014, he started the school’s agricultural program and chartered its FFA chapter, which is now 43 members strong. Students in his AgriSciences 1 and 2, Ag Power, Ag Construction and Natural Resources classes along with junior high shop students all had a chance to help build the house.
“It’s been a good experience, helping someone else who doesn’t have what we have,” said Cassidy Billingsley, a sophomore. “After all the hard work, I was happy to see someone else receive it. I really enjoyed working together and creating something as a group, and it was all a learning experience for me.”
As soon as the first house was finished in the spring of 2018, the FFA members began making plans for the next one. Using the same design, they began work on the structure this past February and completed it in early April.
“After we delivered last year’s house, I listened to the kids talk about how it felt so good to do something meaningful,” Payne said. “I’m glad they’re realizing that doing something to help somebody else has intrinsic value. It doesn’t have to be about the grade or the recognition.”
Small enough to fit on the school’s flatbed trailer, the house resembles an outdoor storage shed. Outside, it’s covered in metal roofing and siding and has two small windows and a door. Inside are insulated pinewood-paneled walls, linoleum flooring and a set of bunk beds outfitted with new sheets, pillows and hand-made quilts. There’s enough space for a folding chair and a small table. Pace’s volunteer group supplied a generator and a small air conditioner from the dismantled village.
“There’s room for two people in it, and with it wrapped and insulated nice and tight, it won’t take much to heat it or cool it,” Payne said. “It’s nothing fancy, but it’s enough to help them survive.”
Not counting the lumber, which was donated by Trinity Lumber in nearby Clubb, Mo., the house takes about $1,500 in supplies to complete, Payne said. Last year, most materials were donated. This year, local businesses, groups and individuals funded the project through financial donations, including $500 each from Farm Credit Services and Piedmont Rotary Club.
“We had people who didn’t have the chance to donate last year ask if they could they donate this year, so we were able to purchase most of what we needed,” Payne said. “We didn’t do any fundraising or anything; that was all just word of mouth. We told the community what we were trying to do, and they wanted to help.”
Most of the participating students admitted they had no prior construction experience, but that didn’t stop them from jumping into the project headfirst, their teacher said. The teenagers handled each step of the building process, from putting up the walls and insulation to installing windows, roofing, siding and flooring. Unanimously, the students said the insulation was the biggest challenge. No one liked touching the itchy fiberglass batting.
“I came into this project not really knowing what to expect, but it’s been fun,” said Savannah Colbert, a junior. “I’ve learned a lot, and there was a sense of accomplishment when we were done. I think it’s important for FFA chapters to help people.”
For a special finishing touch, students created patriotic- themed paintings to decorate the interior, and everyone who worked on the project had an opportunity to sign the walls with encouraging messages for the house’s future residents.
“It makes me choke up thinking about their care for people,” Payne said. “I had people who aren’t even in the ag program come down on their lunch break to work on it. They wanted to put their hands on it and be a part of it. It’s been a really good thing for our students to understand that they can make a positive difference in the world. That’s what FFA is all about.”
Pace said he hopes the efforts of Greenville FFA will inspire other FFA chapters and agriculture education programs to look for ways they can help homeless organizations in their communities with similar projects. The need is there, he said, and it’s often overlooked.
“The homeless are right under our nose, and we don’t even know it,” Payne said. “Where we delivered the house last year, I could see the St. Louis football stadium right across the river. Here are people living with a complete abundance of everything, and then just two or three miles away are people who have nothing but a tarp to sit under when it’s raining. Once in a while that’s by choice, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not.”
One tiny house at a time, Greenville FFA members are doing what they can to help. Payne and his students plan to build a new shelter every year, as long as they can find a place to deliver them. It may not make much of a difference in the overall homeless population, but it will mean everything to the people who get to live there.
“This project has helped me appreciate the things that we have, and it’s important to me as a Christian to be able to help somebody in need,” Payne said. “On the educational side, it does me good to watch the students take ownership. They buy into it, and I can see it in their eyes. They’re not just hammering those nails because Mr. Payne said they had to; they’re doing it because they want to help somebody. It’s a whole new world for them—and me.”
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