There’s a rectangular cut out on the side of a board that took Emalina Cisneros two tries to get right.
The Straub Middle School student snapped the board the first time she tried to saw out a space for a light switch.
But on her second try, she got it, earning the praise of her instructor.
“He said it was a hard cut and not everyone could have done it,” she said.
Cisneros is one of 10 students who spent the week in a unique summer camp put on by the Salem-Keizer School District and Professional Women in Building, a group that’s part of the Home Builders Association of Marion & Polk Counties.
Students from seventh to 10th grade spent four days in the shop at South Salem High School, building three “zen dens,” cozy covered benches where students can curl up and relax.
“It was just mind-blowing how fast it came together,” Cisneros said, surveying the completed projects on the final day of camp.
The local chapter of Professional Women in Building formed last June, and board members have been looking for ways to do more outreach since, said Samantha Crabb, the vice chair and outreach coordinator.
She had already worked with Salem-Keizer’s Career Technical Education Center as an industry professional. The center offers 10 career-focused programs, including residential construction, to high school juniors and seniors.
Crabb approached the coordinator there in the spring and came up with the idea of a summer camp.
They opened it to students regardless of gender. Crabb said the Professional Women in Building group isn’t just focused on mentoring girls — they want to show everyone that women can hold leadership positions in the trades.
It’s about “encouraging girls to be in the industry and showing boys that it’s normal,” she said.
Organizers settled on the zen den project because schools across the district had been seeking the structures to put in calm rooms, classrooms set aside for students to relax and de-stress. South Salem High School got three dens in 2022, and other schools have been asking about them since.
“We didn’t just want to do birdhouses or doghouses,” Crabb said. “This is something there was a need for.”
Students started on Monday learning how to measure cuts and use the tools of the trade. By Tuesday, they were building under the supervision of industry professionals, who volunteered their time to come help.
Local businesses also donated materials and lunch for the students.
“They were running the table saws. We had them on all the power tools,” Crabb said.
By Thursday morning, the dens were finished, with some basic electrical wiring to power a cam light and another outlet for LED lights. Students visited CTEC on a field trip, then returned to the shop for cleanup, vacuuming and sweeping up dust.
“Don’t shake it! We don’t want to kick up dust,” Crabb called, mid-interview, to a student running a dust mop across the polished black floor.
“We’re also teaching them general shop skills,” she said.
Students said they enjoyed learning more about the construction field and the challenges it brings.
“There was a lot of pieces you had to do … more than once,” said Christian Orozco, a sophomore at Blanchet High School. “That’s what made it challenging.”
Orozco said he’s been trying to figure out what career he wants to go into and initially thought construction wouldn’t be enough of a mental challenge. Camp made him realize there’s more to the field than he thought.
“It was really cool, I learned a lot,” he said.
Curtis Fisher, the residential construction teacher at CTEC, hopes the camp will encourage students to apply for his program and come in with a broader skill set.
“My favorite part is watching 10 students who don’t know each other become a unit in a very short period of time,” he said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.