Thursday, July 9, 2020
Girls with Tools Turn SV Community School Classwork into Home for Refugees
Paris Pratt enjoys being a girl with a tool belt.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019


Only a few of the girls had ever handled a hammer before. And all of them had to learn how to put a drill bit in a cordless drill.

But these seven students at Sun Valley Community School now have an eco-friendly tiny house to show for their out-of-the-books curriculum.

“We’re just a bunch of 16- and 17-year-old girls without much construction experience. But we’re building a house and it’s pretty cool!” said Paris Pratt.

Merumo Ishimaru has earned the praise of the girls for knowing her way around building tools. “It’s cool learning about the environment and helping people,” she said.

Not just any house, either.

This house is destined for Twin Falls where it will serve as transitional living quarters for refugees awaiting an apartment.

The tiny house project started as a collaboration between the school’s environmental science teacher Scott Runkel and its English teacher Elliot Jacobs.

Runkel had become increasingly concerned about the increase in the number of larger unsustainable homes across the nation—the average U.S. home is now about 2,500 square feet, up from a thousand square feet at the turn of the last century.

The Sun Valley Community School’s Home Builders Association is comprised of Thea Todd, Scott Runkel, Allison Rathfon, Merumo Ishimaru, Sydney Palmer-Leger, Rosa Schaffner and Elliot Jacobs. At top: Paris Pratt and Sunny Pratt.

And Jacobs had become concerned about the refugee exodus after having spent four months in Morocco where he watched waves of refugees risking their lives to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.

Since both enjoy DIY, or do it yourself projects, they decided they could raise their students’ consciousness about the environment and global humanity with a tiny house project.

They and a different group of students kicked the project off last spring, traveling to Twin Falls several times where they visited with refugees at CSI’s Refugee Center. Then they held a fundraiser at the Limelight Hotel during which they presented what they had learned about the world’s refugee crisis, along with blueprints for their proposed house.

About 65.6 million people have been displaced, said Ella Wolter, with 22.5 million of those classified as refugees. Twenty people are forcibly displaced every minute.

Paris Pratt measures the panel.

Two students—Cami Rawlings and Faye Prekeges—traveled to refugee camps as part of their senior projects. Both said any stereotypes they’d had were shattered.

The kids at refugee camps are just like regular people, Rawlings told her classmates upon her return from the Zaatari refugee camp where she helped organize a soccer tournament for some of the girls among the 80,000 Syrians who live there. Put them in the Community School and you wouldn’t know the difference, she added.

Students held a second fundraiser this past fall, during which they showed a film on refugees and offered samples of the food refugees might eat.

They spent $6,500 on an 8-by-20-foot trailer on which to build the house and started building this past winter.

Sunny Pratt and Merumo Ishimaru have learned the value of teamwork through this house building exercise.

They spent as much time shoveling as hammering during February, as nearby Sun Valley Resort racked up 135 inches of snow.

“And we had to come out at 8 in the morning to get going!” said Paris Pratt.

“I think the girls were surprised by how long it takes to plan and execute something like this,” said Runkel. “Getting walls up was so exciting because of all of a sudden it looked like a house.”

The girls researched each step, figuring out everything from what supplies they needed to how to handle a saw. They watched hours and hours of YouTube videos on how to do this and that. And they invited welders and other builders to walk them through some of the steps.

“At the start, we were learning some really basic things. Now, they’re cutting plywood and doing things they never imagined they could do,” said Runkel. “We’ve found the joy of working with our hands.”

“Scott and I are not builders so this was new to us, too,” said Jacobs. “Pretty much none of us knew how to hold a hammer—we’ve all learned together.”

Rosa Schaffner echoed Jacobs’ thoughts: “We learned that it’s okay to miss the nail,” she said. “We just keep hammering and eventually we get it.”

The girls designed the house to be environmentally friendly, spending $5,000 on prefab paneling with a high R value. They also plan to install a solar panel, rain harvester and incinerating toilet that can be off grid rather than hooked up to plumbing.

The toilet works by torching the waste at the push of a button.

“I don’t know if I would enjoy using it. But we’re trying to be as sustainable as possible,” said Alli Rathfon, who has designated herself the outreach person. “It’s fun to tell our story and encourage people to be involved.”

Jacobs said he couldn’t be prouder of the students.

“They’re awesome,” he said. “They’ve got it totally dialed in. It’s been neat to watch how adept they are at problem solving. They run up against something and immediately they’re on the phone jumping right into it.”

Allison Rathfon will help finish the house during summer school. When done, the downstairs will be divided into a bathroom, living room and kitchen. A bedroom will occupy the loft.

The youngsters hope to deliver it to Twin Falls in September.

“It’ll be cramped,” said Paris Pratt. “But it’ll be awesome.”


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