For Sue Z. Hart, construction is more than simply putting materials together to build a structure.
It’s about building community.
That’s why the Bonney Lake resident started Building Beyond the Walls, an Enumclaw-based non-profit geared toward teaching construction techniques to people from all walks of life in exchange for them going out and giving back to their local communities.
Hart’s story begins in the early 2000s, when she was vice president of construction with Habitat for Humanity in Snohomish County, working with Edmonds Community College.
While she was there, “I saw a need for people to become engaged in their communities, and to get to know each other,” Hart recalled. “And I saw site supervisors who were frustrated because they didn’t have skilled volunteers… so I thought, we need to have a construction training program.”
In 2005, Hart found a working construction program, received a three-year grant through AmeriCorps which helped her purchase the program, located some willing instructors to give their time, and finally started the classes.
Because the grant came from AmeriCorps, participants in the class were required to write a reflection piece at the end of the program. But what may seem like a simple introspective exercise wound up being huge for Hart.
“I now saw the changes that were happening in people, far beyond just getting some construction training,” she said. “So after that three-year grant ended, I realized I needed to find a way to make this an on-going organization.”
Fast forward a few years, and Hart found herself living in Bonney Lake, hosting her first build class in 2015 at Sumner’s Calvary Community Church. The program then moved to the Enumclaw Expo Center in 2016 to take advantage of a roof over their heads during the rainy season, and in 2017, Building Beyond the Walls became an official non-profit.
Most recently, Building Beyond the Walls partnered with the Enumclaw Youth Center and helped teach four Enumclaw School District students various construction techniques as they built a new back door for the center on Aug. 24.
WHAT THE PROGRAM ACHIEVES
On the surface, Building Beyond the Walls is a way for anyone to learn a valuable set of new skills during eight, eight-hour Saturday classes with Hart and her instructors, all for free.
But students aren’t just learning general construction skills — by the end of the program, they will have fully built a structure that will go off to aid a non-profit or another community-oriented organization.
The program has since built structures for the Black Diamond-based Soup Ladies and the Early Childhood Education And Assistance Program (ECEAP) for Liberty Ridge Elementary, among others.
One of Hart’s favorite builds was a playhouse for the Prairie Ridge community for their community center, because the whole community pitched in to raise money for the playhouse and local students decorated the final product. It was so successful, Hart said, that the community continued to raise money on their own for future park improvements.
“So now, we have empowered a community to take care of themselves,” Hart said.
In exchange for the free classes, Hart expects all students to find a non-profit to give at least 50 hours to, which is roughly the same amount of time it takes to go through all eight classes.
To help students find volunteer work, non-profits will serve lunch during breaks and explain what they do in their communities and how students can volunteer their time and skills.
One of Hart’s biggest sticking points about construction is universal access — that no matter what Building Beyond the Walls puts together, it can be used by anyone.
“I was actually in an auto accident, and after two years, I could barely walk or talk,” she said. “And people treated me differently. They pull away because they don’t know what to say or do.”
Hart turned to naturopathic to eventually heal her body, but “volunteering gave me a life afterwards, and I made a decision I would never forget what that felt like,” she added.
This is why instructors at Building Beyond the Walls will specifically help those with disabilities adapt construction tools and processes, giving some a chance to feel the independence they may have been missing in their lives.
Approximately 30 percent of all students who have gone through the program have a physical disability, Hart said, including Gerard Ah-Fook, who was injured in the military and lost his leg.
Ah-Fook, who participated Hart’s construction program in 2006 before it was an official non-profit, said in a 2016 interview he was excited to be a part of the program because he believed “there were a lot of potential projects around the house, and I think what was holding me back was how to do some basic skills and put it together. I was imagining myself doing something I don’t think I ever imagined myself before, which is being out there with a saw or a hammer and constructing something.”
One of Ah-Fook’s favorite personal projects was his chicken coop, which he specially built so that he has access to the roof, despite his disability, Hart said.
Since going through the program, “my head has been in the sky as far as what projects I want to do,” Ah-Fook added. “And it probably always will be.”
It’s stories like Ah-Fook’s that keep Hart going.
“Every class inspires me, because I see people when they first start, and I watch friendships that develop, the awareness that developed in the community around them,” she said. “Within themselves, they become empowered — they had no idea that learning these basic skills would empower them, that it would give them hope in a way they never expected.”
Building Beyond the Walls’ next class won’t be held until February 2019, but you can start getting involved by attending the non-profit’s dinner and auction on Saturday, Oct. 6, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Five2Five on 525 South Division Street in Buckley.
Tickets cost $25, and a number of items to be auctioned off, including items made of reclaimed wood, several art pieces, car detailing, and sports memorabilia.
For more information, go to www.build ingbeyondthewalls.org.