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Seminole Vocational Education Center students learn, serve by building Pinellas Hope shelters


Robert Carson, a recent Seminole High graduate, hopes to find work soon as an electrician's assistant.

Eventually, he also wants to earn a degree in electrical engineering

As the 17-year-old continues to plan his future, he has spent the past two weeks back at the Seminole Vocational Education Center honing the skills he learned there, this time to help the homeless.

Carson and a handful of his former classmates volunteered to build several 6- by 8-foot wooden structures that will serve as homeless shelters.

"I get to apply a lot of the stuff I learned previously," Carson said as he took a break from measuring wooden blocks.

It is the start of an ambitious, two-year effort between the vocational school and Catholic Charities to replace 100 of the 250 tents at Pinellas Hope, the tent city for homeless people.

The deal: Catholic Charities raises the $1,000 it costs to buy materials for each shelter. Students provide the labor.

"It worked out very well," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities. "The students get the experience in construction, and we get the results of their wonderful labor."

Catholic Charities, which oversees the homeless camp at 5762 126th Ave. N, will use the wooden structures for those suffering from medical problems or as an incentive for those who are on the path to independence, Murphy said.

• • •

The work for Pinellas Hope is the first major community project the vocational school, which faced the threat of being shuttered in 2006 because of district budget woes, has undertaken in a long time.

The school built classroom portables for the district many years ago, said Jim Gill, the school's guidance coordinator. That had to stop because of state building code changes.

The center draws carpentry and electrical wiring students from Seminole, Osceola and Largo high schools. The Pinellas Hope project offers them hands-on experience, satisfies national trade certification requirements and fulfills the community service requirements for Bright Futures scholarships, said Matt Fischer, director of the vocational center.

"As the project grew, we realized there were more and more plusses for our kids," he said. "It meets the performance standards need, the community service requirement, and it's a feel-good for our kids."

The Pinellas School Board approved the project at the end of the school year, so volunteers like Carson offered to jump-start the project during the summer.

On any given day, about 11 to 18 students have been sawing, drilling and painting. Within the first week, students built two shelters, each with three windows, a folding table and a light powered by solar panels. Two more were started and will be finished in August when school starts.

Like many students at the center, Zach Lewis hopes to land a better-paying trades job that will help him pay for college. The carpentry student wants to major in history, but he doesn't see himself enrolling any time soon.

"Maybe if the economy is better," said Lewis, 16. "Right now, I can't think about doing that."

• • •

Although the school has seen its fair share of financial difficulty, and despite bleak reports of a depressed real estate market, carpentry and electrical wiring classes remain popular among students from the three high schools.

Both courses drew 267 students last school year, and more than 200 students already have signed up for them in the first semester next year, said Gill, the guidance coordinator.

School officials said they strive to keep up with the demands of the market.

For example, carpentry students are learning more about commercial construction instead of residential, he said. Electrical wiring students, meanwhile, are learning about alternative energy sources.

Some of those skills, such as the installation of solar panels, found its way into the Pinellas Hope shelters.

As interest in green building technology takes off, school officials hope the lessons Carson and his classmates learned from building the shelters will prepare them for their lives beyond high school.

"We have all these skills to offer," Gill said. "We have kids who will … become electrical engineers or architects."

Pinellas Hope project

What: A two-year project to build up to 100 wooden shelters to replace tents in the homeless camp at 5762 126th Ave. N.

Who: Catholic Charities buys the materials; Seminole Vocational Education Center students provide the labor.

Cost: $1,000 per shelter for materials.

To donate: Send checks to Catholic Charities, 1213 16th St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33705. For more information on Pinellas Hope, visit

Seminole Vocational Education Center students learn, serve by building Pinellas Hope shelters 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 4:22pm]
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