Milwaukee Jewish Day School students are part of a project that gets veterans back on their feet | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Milwaukee Jewish Day School students are part of a project that gets veterans back on their feet

For the first time since Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin started a small village of tiny homes for homeless veterans, a group of students has joined the cause. 

Nine sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at Milwaukee Jewish Day School are building a tiny home to join 15 others in the James A. Peterson Veteran Village in Racine. 

At 8’ by 16’, it is only 128 square feet, but it is more than a home: It is a piece of a community of security and stability, a safe haven, a place of restart for veterans who need help getting back on their feet. 

“The project is the perfect manifestation of the values of the school – empathy, wonder, and tikkun olam (repairing the world),” says Jim Salinsky, a woodworking teacher at MJDS who is leading the project. “I think that’s why it gained such early support.” 

Woodworking with a purpose 

It was Salinsky’s idea. The son of a veteran himself, Salinsky says his father served 1954-1956 as a dentist on an Air Force base. A former digital marketing professional, Salinsky picked up woodworking as a hobby and has been teaching the trade as an elective at MJDS for eight years. When he read a news article about a village of tiny homes being built in Milwaukee for homeless veterans, he reached out to school administrators with the idea for students in his class to build a tiny home for veterans. 

“Woodworking is a great skill for young people to learn as either a hobby or a trade,” MJDS spokeswoman Dana Hartenstein says. “MJDS has a fully stocked makerspace used by students to build a variety of projects. Focusing on a tiny home presented a perfect opportunity to incorporate our core values of empathy, wonder and tikkun olam.” 

In mid-March, the students finished building the foundation on cinder blocks. Next they were to build the walls and learn about insulation, electrical wiring and necessary inspections when building a house, even a tiny one. 

The VOW project has given the woodworking class a purpose. Whereas before the hobby class would involve basic woodworking skills or cutting wood to different sizes, building a home means there are architectural plans to follow and exact measurements to adhere to. 

Through the class, the students have gained woodworking skills but also real-life experience and understanding of building a home, including logistics such as building permits, electrical inspections and insurance approvals. 

With donated materials from Sid Grinker Restoration, proceeds from a small collection fundraiser that raised a couple hundred dollars and student volunteers, the tiny home is on track. To complete the project on time – before the end of the school year – Salinsky expects to offer extra credit hours. 

“Students are responding very enthusiastically,” Hartenstein says. “They went on a field trip to the village in Racine and are inspired to make the home really special.” 

While VOW provided the architect design, the students will have full control of the interior, from colors to materials. They’re thinking warm, earthy colors to create a homey feel. 

70 veterans since 2017 

Since the village launched in 2017, about 70 veterans have stayed in a tiny home. VOW Director of Program Services Michael Rembalski says on average, veterans stay in these homes for anywhere between a few days to several months or longer. While there is a cap of two years, it can be flexible depending on need and circumstances.  

This year alone, five veterans have “graduated” from the tiny homes village, successfully getting back on their feet to venture out on their own again. 

The tiny home intentionally only includes a sleeping and a living space – without a bathroom or kitchen – to encourage veterans to socialize and use common facilities at the community center, which includes community amenities such as bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, recreational area, and a laundry room. 

The homes are awarded to veterans based on need and there is a vetting process, including an intake form, a background check and a drug test, plus an interview. The major two rules are that they do not take sex offenders or veterans with dishonorable discharge. At any given time, they can have between 10 and 15 interested applicants, with an uptick in winter. 

Once accepted into the village, there are some community rules as well, including 10 hours of community service, shared responsibilities for chores and village upkeep, and support group every Tuesday, unless they have work or school. The village also offers computer classes and job skills workshops such as resume building and interview tips. 

The students got to hear from some of the veterans who had previously stayed in a tiny home. “One said basically that this program saved his life, because it’s not just a place for them to live,” Salinsky says. “Certainly, it’s that but they also give them jobs skills or they help them get jobs, help them find an apartment. They really do a nice job of getting these guys to be independent again.” 

Hartenstein shared what one of the students working on the project said about it: “He said that learning how to build a house is cool. Building a home for a veteran is important.” 

The project dedication is slated for May in Racine.