A classroom in a container
Children rarely view returning to school after a vacation as a cause for celebration.
However, a group of young learners at primary school in rural South Africa had a particular reason to look forward to resuming classes after a recent break.
The students will spend their school year in a new classroom space made from shipping containers. The project is a result of an effort between the residents from the communities around Hananani Primary School and Andersen Construction Foundation, the charitable foundation of Andersen Construction.
Located in a village called Dixie, the Hananani Primary School had a main classroom building that had been damaged by heavy seasonal rains, making it unusable, so teachers were required to squeeze students in the remaining buildings.
Joel Andersen, CEO of Andersen Construction, learned about the challenges the school faced when he and his family were visiting South Africa. He promised the principal, Concillia Zimande, that he would return and build her a school.
Zimande was polite, but unconvinced. Over the years, she'd had many people promise to help her school, with few results.
This past July, however, 38 volunteers associated with the construction company — including Andersen and his family — showed up at the school ready to create much-needed classroom space.
The best-laid plans
The team had just two weeks to build the new school and renovate the grounds. Andersen was concerned that stretching out the project over too many weeks would lead to burnout for the volunteers, who would be returning to their regular jobs once the Hananani project was completed.
From his previous visit to the primary school, Andersen knew that finding materials and equipment in the rural village might be rough. The nearest store that offered building materials was hours away — a trip made on rutted and unpaved roads — and carried limited supplies.
So the company sent two Conex shipping containers filled with necessities on ahead. Once the containers were empty, they would serve as the walls of the new school.
Even with the main details taken care of, the team members still found themselves faced with a new list of challenges almost as soon as they arrived to begin work on the school.
Team members had two days for organizing volunteers and getting materials and tools laid out. However, they arrived to find the shipping containers delayed at the local port. The team managed to find someone to expedite getting the containers released, but in the meantime, they had about 100 village volunteers waiting around.
"Organization was out the window by day one," Jack Rae, a regional vice president out of Andersen's Eugene office who served as a project manager for the Hananai school project, said. "It was a miracle we got as much done as we did, given the chaos that it started out with."
Even with the tools and equipment they brought (an inventory that included hard hats and safety vests for everyone working on the project), the construction company's team members found themselves having to think on the fly continually. When 50 gallons of gray paint for exterior walls turned out to be lavender, for example, Rae and a village contractor, who had been hired to help expedite local channels, ended up working with the local building store to add enough tint to achieve a color close to what had initially been ordered.
While Andersen's team may have been thrown off by the delays, volunteers from the local village weren't fazed at all. The positive attitude helped buoy up Andersen, Rae and the rest of the construction company's volunteers.
"They were used to (delays), and they responded very well," Rae said. "People pulled together. Even though we were all exhausted at the end of every day, there was so much camaraderie."
The school project didn't just benefit the students. The poverty level in the village is 80%. So, when it came to finding local volunteers, Andersen made sure to focus on work that would help provide skills once the project ended. The company hired both men and women, paying them 200% of what they would typically make in a month.
"We taught them how to pour concrete, and then they learned to finish it," Rae said. "A lot of the (villagers) learned some new stuff."
The construction company also left behind the tools and equipment used for the project so that the village residents could use them in the future. The village contractor who helped facilitate the project told Rae that having that equipment would be a game-changer for his company.By the time the volunteers left, the shipping containers had been refinished to serve as a classroom, including steel trusses provided by Portland-based Fought & Co. and wall mosaics created by local design firm Ankrom Moisan Architects. Fans and LED lights were installed. Desks and chairs, donated by Portland Public Schools, that had been shipped in the containers were now set in place. The school's shelves were restocked with supplies collected by Andersen Construction employees, who also held a drive to raise money to purchase pairs of new shoes for the students.
Volunteers, who represented the construction company's two Oregon offices in Portland and Eugene, as well as Boise and Seattle, also tackled site improvements, including pouring concrete pads and sidewalks, painting the interior and exteriors of all existing buildings, building outdoor seating pods, erecting a parking shade structure and a community sunshade structure, and leveling a soccer field,
All hands on deck
The project area was fenced off early on, as much to keep the chickens and goats that roamed the village freely from leaving prints in the concrete as for safety. Throughout the project, a group of children had watched the work from outside the fencing.
At the end of one evening, after a final pour, the kids were allowed inside the site so that everyone could leave their handprints in a section of the concrete.
"It was such a cool thing," Rae said.
Joel Andersen told the Business Tribune that many of the construction company's employees and their family members who worked as volunteers on the school project said the experience changed their lives. For Rae, the experience has sparked a desire to do more such work in the future.
"For me, I'm a business guy; at the end of the day, I'm motivated to do business. But this was the opposite. It's about giving and affecting other people on the planet," Rae said. "That's the most moving thing — I can engage with people I don't know and can't communicate with very well, and still have an impact on their lives. I want to do it again and again. It's now a bigger part of me."
With an eye toward encouraging other groups, from churches to construction companies, to follow Andersen Construction's lead, the company's foundation is working on an open-source platform that will contain the history of the project, including photos and interviews with volunteers. The platform also will provide guidelines that any individual, organization, or company can access to learn about doing a similar volunteer effort in another country.
"It's going to offer a blueprint that anyone can replicate," Andersen said. "Other contractors can take it and make it better."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.