Duo uses strength, scraping and sanding to beautify school

Senior James Shilts cares about his school so much that it became the focus of his senior project.

Shilts and wrestling teammate Rowen Wiederspohn grappled with the idea of beautifying part of Wrangell High School to satisfy a graduation requirement.

"I was at a wrestling meet in the afternoon (last fall). I was walking outside, and I noticed the benches and how bad they were looking," Shilts said. "The next day, I went and talked to (assistant principal Bob) Davis to see if it was a good enough project." Each senior is required to complete a project their last year.

Davis OK'd the project and Shilts enlisted the help of Wiederspohn because "some of those boards would be impossible to lift by myself."

The pressure-treated pieces of wood used to build the benches range in length from 12 feet to 20 feet and can weigh up to 250 pounds. Though Wiederspohn and Shilts originally intended to refurbish all the benches on campus, weather and time limited them to two benches totaling 150 feet.

"I think winter came on sooner than they were thinking," said Josh Blatchley, maintenance director for the school district and supervisor for the project. "Then there was the announcement saying senior projects were due in a month and a half, but they were able to get the pieces into the shop. They got it taken care of."

Had they begun the project when Wrangell was inundated with snow in January, Shilts said they would have had to use a blowtorch to melt the ice from the bolts holding the wood planks on the concrete base.

Once the icy conditions had thawed and the planks could be removed, Wiederspohn and Shilts carried the wood downstairs to the workshop.

"We had to wait for the board to dry, so it took three days for us to completely scrape off the old paint," Shilts said. "Then we had to sand the parts of the boards that got scored by the scraping."

They measured the boards to determine the square footage and the amount of paint they would need. It wasn't a difficult task, according to Shilts who described his partner as a math "whiz."

"I guess I'm in the top 90% when it comes to math," Wiederspohn said. "I always scored pretty high on math tests."

Wiederspohn will use that skill when he moves onto higher education, seeking a degree in engineering, though he isn't tied to any one specific career path at this point.

"I want to go to Fort Lewis (in Durango, Colorado) for computer engineering," he said. "The main reason I want to go there is if you're Native, you can get your tuition for free. I feel like it will be a good spot to at least start college because I won't be spending money if I want to switch anything."

Shilts has two possible goals for life after high school. He will either join the military or go to Brigham Young University, Hawaii in Laie to pursue a degree in political science, with a minor in business.

"I saw that as a good place to go," Shilts said. "I'm still waiting to hear by April if I get accepted. If not, I'm going to go to Arizona State (University in Phoenix). They also have one of the highest-ranking political science programs."

For both, it's a chance to experience life outside of Wrangell, Shilts said. "Even if we don't like it, we can come back up here eventually."

After the boards for the benches were painted, Wiederspohn and Shilts had the task of hauling the wood back up to the quad area and remounting them. The project has helped them expand their skill sets, Wiederspohn said, along with their communication skills.

"I learned how to reach out to people a little better, and then I had never taken the paint off a board and put new paint on it," Wiederspohn said.

For Shilts, it was a chance to say thanks.

"My goal mainly was to give back to the school as gratitude for them teaching me for four years," he said. "Even if it was small, I wanted to give something that was going to last for a while in hopes that, during the summertime, people could have a nice place to sit."

Blatchley said it's heartening to see students want to help out where they can.

"They get some ownership and take pride in their school," he said. "We've had some student organizations take ownership in the inside with plants and artwork, and some have built picnic tables for outside. With Rowen and James, their investment makes for a better space. I just hope they get to enjoy the benches on a sunny day before they graduate."


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