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Milwaukee Jewish Day School students build a tiny house for veterans

Dec 16, 2023Dec 16, 2023

Students in a typical woodshop class might make a birdhouse or jewelry box, but the woodworking club at Milwaukee Jewish Day School in Whitefish Bay has taken on a bigger and more meaningful project. Under the guidance of adjunct instructor and woodworking expert Jim Salinsky, sixth through eighth grade students are building a tiny house for military veterans in Racine.

The idea for the project evolved from a desire to teach practical life skills while reinforcing the school's core values. "I've taught woodworking (at the school) for seven or eight years and always thought it would be nice to do something like home repair or basic electrical. I was told about a donor who wanted us to come up with more skills-based offerings that kids can use later in life," Salinsky said.

The idea gained momentum as a way to expose students to alternative career options.

"Not everybody is cut out for a four-year college. Some students are more interested in the trades or a two-year technical school," Salinsky explained.

After reading about the Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin's Veteran Village campus featuring tiny houses, Salinsky paid a visit with his father, Dr. Gerald Salinsky, who served as a dentist on an Air Force base in South Dakota in the 1950s.

"We noticed that each of the tiny homes had been built by a different organization," Salinsky recalled.

When he reached out to Michael Rembalski, director of program services, to ask if the school's woodworking club could build a tiny house, the response was encouraging. "Veterans Village was totally open to the idea of us building a house. And they said, ‘it doesn't matter what it looks like, we'll take it,’" Salinsky recalled.

But the students aren't settling for shoddy work.

"This project is absolutely amazing," said Veterans Village outreach coordinator Danielle Opahle. "I'm an adult and can't hang a shelf without watching a YouTube video, but these kids are building a tiny home."

In January, the students went to Racine to meet with a former tiny house resident.

"The students met a graduate of the program, Glenn, who had an incredible attitude," Salinsky said. "He's a great guy, and he answered all the students’ questions."

Glenn Miller served in the U.S. Navy from 1984 to 1992 and lived in Veterans Village for almost two years. He credits the program with preparing him for his current full-time job at S.C. Johnson and life in his own apartment; Miller has immense appreciation.

"This place saved my life, basically," Miller said. "I think it's so wonderful that the kids are going to build this house. It's just awesome."

The village has common areas like community spaces, dining and bathroom/shower facilities. But having a separate living area is an important element in preparing veterans for life after the program.

"Our tiny homes let veterans get back on their feet when they need it the most. It lets them get their minds right, pay off debt, go to school, or find a job without the worries of housing bills coming in every month," Opahle said.

"Sometimes you just want your own space and you want to be by yourself. The tiny house is like an apartment or a house where you relax, read a book, watch TV and do what you want," Miller explained.

The Jewish Day School's building site is next to the school parking lot, but starting the project in January presented its own set of challenges.

"For the first couple weeks I tried to do a little bit of design work and explanation in the classroom, but we needed to get out there and start working," Salinsky said. "So we bundled up and for the most part, it was fine. I had to shovel snow off the platform a couple times, and the kids had to huddle under a heater, but they were troopers about it."

With a goal of delivering the house before the end of the school year in June, the pressure was on.

"I only get the kids from 2:30 to 3:30 every Tuesday and Thursday, and we weren't making enough progress," Salinsky recalled. "I told them we’d have to put in extra time on Sundays, and I made that time optional. They love it. We meet from 10 in the morning to 3 and they always ask, ‘Can we stay until 4?’"

On a recent day, the woodworking students were still enthusiastic about the tiny house project. Parents at the school asked that this article use only the students' first names.

"The (school's) core values are empathy, wonder and Tikkun Olam, which (in Hebrew) means repairing the world," said sixth grade student Matan. "The kindness is us pitching in and fixing the world and showing empathy because we’re looking out for our elders."

The students appreciate the skills and mission of the project.

"It's really fun using the nail gun and putting insulation on the inside … hopefully it will look really nice. Not all these veterans have homes, they need financial support, mental support and a bunch of other supports," seventh grader Baylen added.

Sam, a sixth-grade student, commented, "I think it's really important to help veterans, they helped our country, we should give back to them when they need it."

Gaining practical skills is a bonus, "If I’m camping and I want to use a generator, it will help to know how to do that for the future," he said.

"I like building and knowing that I’m helping somebody. I’ve learned how to use tools," sixth grade student Sabella said.

Seventh grader Rafi chimed in, "I learned how to put in a window and use a nail gun."

"Trades are an excellent way to earn a living. Right out of high school you can get into a trade and make a good living, and this can give the kids a taste of that," Salinsky explained.

But the kids don't get a taste of every element of the process. "Several kids have asked if they can get up on the roof, and I said, ‘no,’" Salinsky added.

Anyone who's managed a construction project, can relate to budget shortfalls, which Salinsky incorporated as a real life lesson.

"Another good learning experience is that I had a budget designed and all the materials increased in cost. We also faced some unanticipated things," Salinsky said. "The folks at Veterans Outreach said they'd prefer if the walls were not drywall because it can be damaged easily. They prefer wood walls, which are probably four times the cost of drywall. So, while we've had very generous donors, we're still about four grand short."

To support the students’ efforts and the tiny house project, visit