Full Circle

How does a not-for-profit group deal with major repairs needed to its sole asset when the group uses all the proceeds from its fundraisers for programs for kids in the community? With help from the community it serves, the Belleville Kiwanis Club not only had the desperately needed repairs make but also used the opportunity to provide students with hand-on learning experiences.

Tree lot operations headquarters

For decades, the club has used a vintage 1956 tear drop shaped travel trailer as its base of operations for the annual Christmas tree lot. The trailer has provided volunteers with a place to warm up, escape the rain or snow, eat a snack, store supplies, and tell tall tales while waiting for another wave of customers. Other than removing the stove and sink, the interior remained the same as it was originally configured for camping. Unfortunately, time and the elements had a very negative impact on the trailer’s metal exterior and the wood paneled interior. The wheels and tires were original and club members held their breath every time it had to be moved from the tree lot to storage and back.

. Most of the glass windows were chipped from rocks. Interior seating was limited and cramped, and lighting was inadequate. Rot lurked in the walls where gaps in the metal exterior and around the windows had allowed moisture to enter. The scope of this project was much bigger than just putting on a coat of paint and the trailer appeared to be beyond hope.

The group lacked the skills to tackle the work themselves and the cost to have the trailer repaired and sealed up from the elements professionally was well beyond the constraints of the club’s limited funds as was purchasing a replacement. The problem put the group’s major fundraiser at risk.

The solution seemed to be in the hands of the instructors of the construction, drafting, and automotive repair programs at Belleville Township High School District 201 who planned to use the trailer as a hands-on class project. Jeff Riley who teaches construction and drafting began planning and coordinating the project. Belleville West students took on gutting the trailer and helping to develop plans for restoration. Educator Rusty Rayburn worked with Joel Sydow of Mission Accomplished Automotive to obtain new wheels and tires which were installed by students making the trailer once again safe to transport. During the tear out process, the students became aware that the metal supporting the floor was so rotted that only the old linoleum was holding up the people inside.

And then………the pandemic hit and students were forced into remote learning. The project was in limbo and the Kiwanians were questioning how they could operate the tree lot in 2020. Kids were in even greater need in the community and the tree lot fundraiser appeared to be in jeopardy.

About the time that club members were deciding to cancel tree lot operations, the educators came up with a plan. A senior at Belleville East Joe Laidley had been serving as shop foreman pre-pandemic and needed a project to complete remotely in order to earn class credits. The trailer was relocated to his family’s home so that Joe with supervision from Belleville East instructor Eric Benhoff could work on finishing repairs and reconfiguration and reassembly of the interior.

Nicki Jensen and the team at Martin Glass replaced the old, damaged window glass and sealed the windows to keep out the elements. Liese Lumber provided materials and discounted lumber for the interior work. Pieshka Williams and Lowes provided new weather resistant flooring that Joe installed.

This project was a major undertaking The exterior repairs alone required a full five-pound box of sheet metal screws. The wheels and tires had been in place for over 60 years. The interior ceiling and rear wall are curved which meant the wood that was used for the interior finish had to be curved in advance to match. The interior layout was designed to maximize seating and storage while working around the structural items such as wheel wells. As the project neared completion, the Belleville West sewing instructor Jane Steinkuehler assisted teacher Jennifer Stauffer with making covered cushions for the bench seating which line the walls. Once the construction was complete, Belleville West Key Club members stained the wooden bench seats in the trailer as well as touching up paint on the exterior.

Through the hard work of the students and teachers and the community spirit demonstrated by our local businesses, the trailer Club. The Christmas tree lot was able to operate in 2020 . Club members and customers have all been impressed at how well the renovation turned out. It is another example of a small potion of how the circle of giving is at work in Belleville, Illinois.