Students build a gathering place

·5 min read

Jun. 8—A little more than a week ago, when students, teachers and administrators gathered for Butte Falls Charter School's annual prom, it was more than a night of music and dancing. It was a time for the students to celebrate the very structure under which they danced.

For the inaugural outdoor prom May 27, school Superintendent Phil Long, manufacturing instructor Chris Mathas and students, including Keara Milch and Rikie Myers, gathered around the pavilion that so many students had helped build over a five-year period.

"The prom that the juniors put on for the seniors, it was just a magical evening," Milch, a junior, said. "It had a huge sense of accomplishment, not only completing the prom but the pavilion, at the same time."

The pavilion proved critical on the prom's scheduled date, which saw cold and rainy weather. However, Myers said, it all cleared up once the dance started.

"(The pavilion) really brought us all together," he said, "and I feel that's why prom was more of a success to our class because we were able to help build the pavilion itself."

Mathas noted the hours leading up to the high school dance were an important part of the pavilion's unveiling, as well.

"They really got to create that ownership, that final seal of approval for the pavilion when they spent 24 hours decorating the whole thing for the prom," he said.

Long was among the officials who saw the pavilion unveiled.

"I'm really proud of our kids and what they've done," Long said. "I just think in this area of the pandemic and chaos, it's great to have a resource like the Natural Resource Center and build something sustainable and make a difference for the community and have fun doing it."

The Natural Resource Center facility is a story in and of itself on the site of a 100-year-old state fish hatchery — the oldest one in Oregon at the time.

"What goes through my mind is how far we've come from what it looked like before. When I first went to the NRC back in fifth grade, it was a very rundown place," Milch said. "Having the pavilion there and having everything fall into place perfectly is a good kick-start to getting that place up and running again. The pavilion absolutely started that."

The pavilion sits just above an old fish pond, which is dry now and will be rebuilt into an amphitheater, according to Mathas.

The pavilion was a concept that came in 2016 from the manufacturing instructor and several of his students.

"I think it was serendipitous. We had the resources available," said Mathas, referring to a dozen dying Douglas fir trees that were 100 years old and faced the possibility of being hauled off.

"The students and I said, 'Why don't we just mill them at the natural resource center and create the timbers that we need to create a pavilion?'"

They milled 14,000 board feet of timber and lumber.

"That was a teachable moment — how we turn those dead trees over time into something that's valuable for the community," Mathas said, noting that the roofing from the old school gym was another repurposed element of the project.

The lumber was stickered and milled to make the pavilion. Mathas began working with a local engineer and attained building permits from Jackson County to build the structure.

Milch got involved in the project last year when she worked on the roof and foundation portions of the pavilion before class. She remarked the weather was always "very gracious."

For his part, Myers didn't weld the tabs, but he grinded them to make them clean-looking. He also cut wood for the roofing and handed it up to crews working on the structure.

"Everything was a big learning curve," Myers said.

Some aspects of the project, as well as things out of the charter school's control, led to the pavilion not being completed for a number of years.

It took Mathas' students a year to become certified welders and another year to weld 100 steel brackets needed to put the structure together, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic's supply chain and labor challenges also meant that Mathas had to work with a contractor himself to finish the framework of the pavilion.

"Looking back on it, it seems like a relatively short piece of time when we look at the value that we have for the financial investment," the school's manufacturing instructor said. "I think we're all looking to the future with such high hopes that the past has been compartmentalized."

Now that the structure is complete, Mathas hails the work of 30 students to build the charter school's first open-air classroom. Ever the teacher, he hopes they look back on it with a few lessons learned.

"I want them first to understand that no dream is too small, and I want them to understand that with initiative and increased effort, they can achieve great things," Mathas said.

The materials that were repurposed to make the pavilion also should serve as a way to remind students how they can be environmentally sensible in their adult lives, he added. But more than that, Mathas wants his students to remember the pavilion is a space where events, from barbecues to dances, will happen.

"I also want them to have the sense of community that comes with building a gathering place like this," he said. "(And let's) bring our youth back to the community after they've graduated from college or finely honed their skills and use their skills in our community."

For Myers, his work on the pavilion was life-changing.

"I never thought I'd be building a building and laying concrete, and building a bridge and clearing out a bunch of brush and everything — I never thought I'd be doing that in school," he said. "Now, I am, and I realize this is basically what I want to do in my life."

Milch can't wait to come back to the pavilion decades from now, when she has a family of her own.

"I just want people to admire the work that was done by students," she said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.