‘A humongous blessing’: Loxahatchee students build houses with purpose

7:22 p.m Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017 Local
Students in Seminole Ridge High School’s Weitz Construction Academy help move a section of roof that will be transported from the school Thursday and assembled Friday in West Palm Beach. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

It starts in a warehouse-like space at Seminole Ridge High School.

It takes shape over a period of months, with young hands bringing it to life. Plywood, drywall, nails and wires come together under the watchful eyes of mentors to create the finished product: A home for Habitat for Humanity, the sixth built by the team of students in the Weitz Construction Academy at Seminole Ridge.

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About a dozen students gathered at the school Thursday morning to watch their creation take flight — as Weitz Co. crews moved it piece-by-piece using a crane and seven flatbed trucks to an overnight home at the School District’s Summit Boulevard facility.

On Friday morning, Weitz was back at it, with crews setting the pieces of house and roof in place on a lot along Miss Piney Road in suburban West Palm Beach.

Emily Luna and her daughter, 17-year-old Pryzinda, watched their new house take shape. By 3 p.m., the Lunas would be able to walk through their front door — albeit via a ladder in lieu of front porch steps.

“This is a humongous blessing,” Emily Luna said.

But before any of that could happen, the students at Seminole Ridge had to make sure the carefully crafted house could actually make it out of their workshop.

‘Like toothpaste through a tube’

The house built in the Weitz Construction Academy is unlike any other offered by Habitat for Humanity, and not just because it is constructed by students.

Its modular design comes courtesy of architect David Porter, chair of the School District’s construction oversight committee. When program director and teacher Rick Terkovich dreamed up the project, Porter was one of the first people he approached for help.

Porter designed the body of the three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,206-square-foot house in four “modules” designed to fit perfectly through the bay door on the school’s north side.

“It comes out like toothpaste through a tube,” he said.

Building a house and a career

The idea for a home-building project came from a high school in Marathon that did something similar, said Seminole Ridge Principal James Campbell.

“Our teacher (Terkovich) did not want to do the old-school shop class,” Campbell said. Instead, Terkovich launched that first year of construction academy students in 2005 on a mission to build a new ticket booth and storage facility next to the school’s football field.

When Terkovich came across the program in Marathon. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, we can do that,’” hesaid.

Amanda Salfelder is a 2016 graduate of the academy who now works for Weitz as a paid intern. The 19-year-old said she was honored when the company that funds the Seminole Ridge program offered her a job fresh out of high school — making her a third-generation construction worker.

For Principal Campbell, Salfelder is a perfect example of the kind of employee the academy produces. “Every student who’s wanted a job in the construction industry has had one before they even walk across the stage at graduation,” he said.

‘A sense of accomplishment’

Even schools Superintendent Robert Avossa stopped by for Thursday’s roll-out of the house the students started building in February. “I have seen where they have the house’s ribbon-cutting, but I’ve not seen this,” Avossa said. “This is awesome.”

Lance Waddell, 17, is a senior in the Weitz program and said this is the fourth house he ushered from the modestly-sized hole in the side of their workshop and into the world.

“It’s great helping people,” he said.

For Weitz Co. President Dennis Gallagher the program is “a win-win-win-win,” he said: Not only does Weitz have a funnel to skilled workers, but Habitat for Humanity gets a solidly built house, a family gets a new home and the students get experience.

“Everybody benefits from it,” he said. “… And it’s a life lesson for these students.”

While several more months of construction remain — including a heating and air-conditioning system from the students at Royal Palm Beach High School — the two days of moving and assembling the house are a climax for the Seminole Ridge students.

The Lunas, who will be able to move into their new house in March, will pay about $550 a month on a 30-year, interest-free mortgage, said Bernie Godek, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Palm Beach County. To qualify for Habitat for Humanity, applicants must prove a financial need but also the ability to pay the mortgage, while also meeting a minimum credit score.

For Emily Luna, that $550-a-month payment is a major change.

“I actually get to see something outside of just paying bills,” she said. “There’s no breathing room right now.”

‘Never too young to change the world’

After applying to Habitat for Humanity twice before, Emily said this time around felt different. “This third time I had this gut feeling like, ‘This is yours,’” she said. A sign at the front of the construction site makes it even more real: It reads, “This Home is Being Built for The Luna Family.”

“That term, ‘You’re never to young to change the world?’ That definitely came into play here,” Emily said of the students who gave her and her daughter a place to call home.

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