Nine months ago, the southern Oregon fires destroyed over 40% of the homes and businesses in Talent, Oregon, a town of about 6,700 about 30 miles north of the California state line.
Today, many foundations are still filled with the charred remains of what once was a home. Rusted iron pots are stacked neatly at the corner of a foundation. Cooled molten glass drapes what once was a stove. A broken flamingo chime dangles from a crumpled post. A man shows me pictures of the day he tried to save his home with a garden hose. “I’m living with my sister until I figure out what to do next,” he told me.
With this backdrop, on a windy, cold spring day, I’ve come to Talent Maker City to interview its founders, Alli French and Ryan Wilcoxson, about The Bus Project. A “first-in-the-nation” collaboration with the Education Service District (ESD), The Skoolie Home Foundation and other community partners, the project will convert a decommissioned school bus into a tiny home for a family displaced by the 2020 southern Oregon fires.
A sign on the front workstation greets visitors: “To make or not to make, there is no question!”. Table saws buzz, laser printers chirp as they slide back and forth, and drills churn. The yellow, 40-foot-long Blue Bird Bus is parked in the back lot, windows removed and carpenter’s plastic snapping in the wind. A large-scale prototype of the bus conversion, with paper doll people, sits on a shop table.
When I first met Alli and Ryan two years ago, Alli told me, “We didn’t have a space when we started. At a small local farm we made cheese from cute little goats. With Phoenix (Oregon) Public Schools we worked with the migrant education programs. In the evenings, we were running an intro to carpentry for women builders, a skills workshop. We chose Talent Maker City because we want to go beyond our city limits.”
Collaborators to their bones, and makers to their souls, conversation with Ryan and Alli is like weaving a complex tapestry with simple thread. As one begins, the other adds to the sentence, clarifying and enhancing the details. It’s mind boggling what they accomplish and the partnerships they’ve built.
Ryan begins by sharing how Talent Maker City responded to Covid-19. “Within days of the shutdown, our community of makers was sewing masks, prototyping brackets for face shields, and even creating protective gear for hospitals out of rafting material. “
Alli adds, “There were two groups. One was engineers and makers, the other was students who could check out 3D printers through the school district.”
Ryan responds, “At that point we weren’t considering how we were going to survive (as an organization), but how the larger humanity has to survive. It’s so important for any community to have makers willing to jump in, in a moment’s notice.”
In August, just as they finally caught a breath, tragedy struck the town of Talent. The Southern Oregon fires consumed 2,800 homes and trailer park units, leaving over a third of their population without a home. “This time, it was many of our students from the LatinX community, the workers of this region,” says Alli. “That hit all of us really hard.”
Once the basic needs of survival like water, diapers, toothpaste and pet food were provided by After Rogue Climate and Rogue Action Center, Talent Maker City initiated their Rise Up and Rebuild Workshop Series, partnering with Girls Build to make and deliver bed frames for families who were displaced by the fire. New mattresses, quilts and pillows were all donated. “Help came from everywhere,” Alli says. “We are never standalone entity. We are literally held up by all our community partnerships. The partnerships from these past projects helped us move into The Bus Project.”
Julie Aikens, founder of the Skoolie Home Foundation, is one of those partners. She reached out to Talent Maker City: “I feel like we could work together. You have this network of makers, and I have these two buses, and people need housing right now.” At the same time, the Education Service District (ESD) was looking for a project merging career and technical education. It all seemed so big. Was it too big? Alli reached out to the South Medford High School Construction Technology teacher, asking if he’d be interested in teaming up. He responded, “I’m so excited and maybe ignorant. This maybe can’t be done, so we should just try it.”
In April, the buses arrived. Students receive a paid internship to learn design, carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. Deconstruction of the buses is complete and framing underway. One student told me, “It makes a huge difference knowing someone is going to use something we worked on together, not just using, but living in. If I put something in wrong, I’m like, there’s going to be a family living in here so I should redo that.”
Near the end of our interview, Ryan reflected, “From the very beginning we said we needed to be in downtown Talent because we were going to be a place where the community could congregate and get to know each other. It just wasn’t the circumstances we could have ever predicted. Now we are giving people the opportunity to discover their own capacity to solve problems, the confidence to do it, and building a makers network to weather the natural disasters or other calamities that towns like ours face.”