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Reynolds Learning Academy students join a local nonprofit to support unhoused Portlanders

PMG PHOTO: ANGEL ROSAS  - Reynolds Learning Academys Trades Program class constructed a waiting shelter for homeless Portlanders seeking food and resources. With another brutal Winter in the Pacific Northwest here, students at Reynolds Learning Academy's Trades Program joined forces with nonprofit Operation Nightwatch to help construct waiting shelters to protect Portland's homeless population from the elements.

The 40-foot-by-6-foot structure sits in front of the St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish, 1432 S.W. 13th Ave., where Operation Nightwatch's downtown hospitality center is located, and provides a place to rest for those seeking help from the organization. The nonprofit provides space for unhoused Portlanders to find care and respite during night-time hours.Unhoused people there receive food and essential items and have a place to relax and secure other services through Operation Nightwatch's programs.

Building the shelter

"Our students are excited to give back to their community by helping to build this structure for Operation Nightwatch," said Angie Gilbert, Reynolds Learning Academy School-to-Work Trades Coordinator. "It builds empathy (and) gives our students a real-world experience, motivation and the self-confidence to enter the workforce with that experience."

The Reynolds Learning Academy (RLA) is a public alternative school in Fairview that houses non-traditional high school programs. The trades class that Gilbert runs helps students in many facets of their life, but its main purpose is to connect students with apprenticeships and hone their skills.

The students built some parts of the structures at the school's workshop and then transported those pieces to be assembled in Portland.

Juan Vasquez, a senior at RLA and a student part of the construction of the shelters, said that although he had previous experience working with his hands, working as a team added a new dimension. Junior Rocky Espiritu said what she enjoyed the most was being able to have multiple roles like measuring to actually assembling the structure in Portland.

On top of building the structures, the students secured donations for the project from Lowe's Home Improvement stores in Clackamas and Tigard, the Happy Valley Home Depot and Mr. Plywood in Portland. Cantel Barricades in Portland also provided barricades around the construction site at a discounted rate.The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) also provided guidance through the permitting process to help ensure the success of the project.

"It was a great display of community with all of the materials being donated," Gilbert said.

The tight knit group are part of a cohort of students, meaning they share each of their classes together along with their trades class.

"It was cool to put everything together and use what we learned," said senior Qwavon Russel. "It felt good to work together like a team."

Lending a helping hand

It wasn't lost on the class that what they were doing would help out a great deal of struggling individuals.

"It felt nice, to give people a sanctuary almost so they can come and be out of the weather and the elements," said junior Jaden Thomas. "So they can just have a place to eat a hot meal and just have a place where they can forget about life's struggles for a little bit."

"Operation Nightwatch provides food and essential items to our unhoused community, but our mission is about building relationships and promoting dignity. That's difficult to accomplish outside in the elements. There's no dignity in a long line to get a hand-out," Nightwatch Executive Director Danielle Klock said. "The street seating will provide an experience comparable to what housed Portlanders have been getting outside of their favorite restaurants. I think our unhoused neighbors deserve that, and I am grateful to the students at Reynolds Learning Academy and our business supporters for making that a reality."

Future projects

Unfortunately, because of COVID, the class has delayed some other partnerships and apprenticeship opportunities, but Gilbert said she has been forming relationships with some new partners that they will be able to work with in the future.

Gilbert is hopeful that the class will be able to continue working on similar projects as the school year goes on. The class has given some students some new perspectives and opportunities that a typical high school class wouldn't provide. Both Russel and Thomas said that these projects, working in a group and using their hands alleviated some of the stress and monotony that high school life can bring.

"It is nice to get out of the pattern of 'sit here, read this,'" Thomas said. "It has definitely helped me out a lot, dealing with the boring aspects of high school."

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