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Nine Years of Transformation: Barre Tech Center Building Trades Students Contribute to Hurricane Katrina Recovery Efforts

by Emily Kaminsky
Every year for the last nine years, building trades instructor Steve Coultas has lead a group of more than a dozen Barre Technical Center (BTC) juniors and seniors on an eight-day trip to the Louisiana Delta. Their mission: to help with the ongoing rebuilding and recovery efforts following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike in 2005 and 2008.
Coultas, who used to live in Florida, says it’s second nature to use his hammer to help people in need, especially after a destructive hurricane. “Katrina was happening while we were in building trades class,” he remembers. “I told my students that I wish I could go down there and help. They said, ‘Let’s do it, maybe we can.’”
Encouraged, Coultas began the search for opportunities and sponsors. After multiple turndowns by relief agencies, his persistence finally paid off. A relief group working in Waveland, Mississippi was willing to sponsor them. Fundraising for the trip proved to be easy.
“I was shocked at how much money came from the Barre community,” Coultas says.
Subsequent trips have been funded by sales of low-cost housing and sheds built by building trades students during the year. This April, Coultas took fourteen students to Dulac, Louisiana, an hour and a half south of New Orleans. The Dulac Community Center, run by the Houma, a Native American tribe indigenous to the region, provides them with the tools, accommodations, and work opportunities. “These days it’s not so much disaster relief but more poverty relief,” explains Coultas. “We’re helping people with basic home needs like building accessibility ramps, re-roofing, painting, fixing rots, leveling up houses.”
Phil Gentile, BTC cooperative education program coordinator who helped chaperone the group the last two years, says that the area is still facing storm damage. “A lot of people never built high enough, so there is a lot of flooding. Many of our projects are stilted above water,” he says.
The eight-day trip is full of work. Some jobs are short-term in nature or the students are filling in for a long-term project, completing one week of work on a three-month job. “Our students built a 400-foot accessibility ramp for a homeowner whose wife was disabled. They built the ramp back and forth to reach eight feet so she could walk or he could push her in her wheelchair. It took eight kids the whole week to build that,” says Gentile. Other jobs have included rebuilding steps, decks and dilapidated houses. All of the building materials are donated to the community center, which then provides the students with the tools and organizes the work opportunities. After an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. workday, the students have a chance for free time which often includes cultural enrichment.
BTC seniors Russell Wood of Barre and Daniel Beede of Waterbury worked on the same team in Dulac this spring to help refinish and expand a house for a recently divorced mother and autistic daughter who were living alone in an unfinished and unsafe house.
“We rebuilt the laundry room, did electrical, put up paneling and trim,” remembers Wood. While they enjoyed the work and had a little fun along the way, Wood fondly remembers the relationships he built with the other students, “We did a lot of bonding. We all worked together. It went smoother than I expected,” he says.
Beede fondly remembers the large crawfish boil that one family put together for the students. “It was fun to eat and talk with the locals. It kind of surprised me that they are a lot like us even though they talk a little different,” he says.
Both students are graduating this year. Wood is heading to Florida for Air Force fire protection training, and Beede is staying local for a carpentry apprenticeship and then maybe going on to Vermont Technical College’s building trades program.
According to Coultas, students from the first group nine years ago are still talking about how the trip was a life-changing experience. “People were grateful. They don’t always get that kind of appreciation in school,” he says. Barre Technical Center, located on the Spaulding High School campus just outside of downtown Barre, has been serving students in Washington County with professional career development opportunities since 1969. Coultas says, “These students are just as dedicated and hardworking as any in this state. But there are some for whom the educational system has absolutely, totally failed.” On paper, he explains, they look like failures, but in programs like his, they are successful. “When you start to apply the Pythagorean theorem to create a set of stairs, kids start to realize the value of education,” he says.
Coultas hopes to continue the program into the future, though he’s quick to say that it’s not a guarantee. “It has to be the right group of kids and I have to have the support of the administration and parents.” As long as Coultas and his students continue to find homeowners for the houses they build during the year, they will have a source of funding to continue their trips south. “We don’t have a homeowner for the next year and we’re looking for one. The cost for the house is the cost of materials plus a 16 percent markup. That’s it,” he says. Senior Daniel Beede’s family was actually the recipient of a house built by the building trades program in 2010.
“I’m in the program partially to try and give back. The house we worked on this year was similar to the one my family purchased. It’s going to a family in Waterbury Center; the husband is likely going to become disabled in the future due to a health condition, so we made the house fully accessible,” Beede says.
Buying a BTC-built house is not only an opportunity for an affordable home and a chance for local young tradespeople to hone their skills, it’s also the ticket to a transformative experience both for the BTC building trades students and the people whose lives they improve here and in the Louisiana Delta.
Wood summed it up this way. “Even though we’re a big group of guys, we still have a good heart. We’re out to help people and we do it for free. It puts a smile on everyone’s face to know that we saved someone money and helped them when they couldn’t afford it.”
For more information about the BTC Building Trade Program, contact Steve Coultas at 476-6327, ext 2137 or scoulbtc@u61.net.