Making a Difference Now

The following column originally appeared during February, 2022 in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, including the Morrison County Record.


Making a Difference Now


While Minnesotans often are understated, I’d like to say hooray for Sarah Sannes, Jada Jones-Vogt, Zavion Thompson and Shannon Gavrilov! They’re helping high school students learn construction skills as they build homes for Minnesotans experiencing homelessness in suburban and urban communities.

Jada, of Coon Rapids, and a student at Paladin Career and Technical High School, described “the wonderful feeling of knowing I helped someone get a home…knowing I was a part of that.” She told me that regular school had not worked out for her, so she enrolled in Paladin, a local charter school. Her plan, after graduating, is to get a construction job.

Zavion, another Paladin student, told me that helping build a home for a homeless family “felt really good. I was putting back into the community I live in.”

Jada and Zavion (Photo courtesy of Sarah Sannes, Paladin Career and Technical High School)


Jada and Zavion agreed that regular high schools weren’t working out for them.

We hear a lot about youth experiencing trauma and the need for more counselors. Yes, that’s real. But young people also need to develop a sense of purpose, and confidence that comes from knowing they’ve made a difference for others as they gain academic and marketable skills.

A three-minute encouraging video shows Jada, Zavion and others doing all of that. It’s here:

Paladin’s involvement started with Sarah Sannes, their school counselor. Now in her 11th year as a counselor in district and charter public schools, Sannes sees it as part of her responsibility “to seek out and help develop partnerships that serve our students.”

Though Paladin is in Blaine, Sannes attended a workshop in St Paul where she met representatives of Tree Trust YouthBuild. As she explained, “We saw our programs complemented each other.”

Sannes felt there weren’t enough pathways to jobs for students not interested in four-year colleges or universities. The Tree Trust YouthBuild option “seemed perfect for some of our students.”

Students earn high school credit and receive a paycheck (similar to students in other work experience programs, like working at a fast-food franchise.)

Shannon Gavrilov, program manager for Tree Trust YouthBuild told me that its collaboration with schools has led to students helping construct more than 20 homes with Habitat for Humanity “throughout the Twin Cities metro area, ranging from North Minneapolis to Crystal, Cottage Grove, Chaska, Hastings, St. Paul, and West St. Paul.” Five more homes will be completed soon. As they build homes, Gavrilov says that students “learn workplace safety and gain valuable, hands-on construction skills, such as reading blueprints and using math to calculate measurements and material costs.”

Tree Trust YouthBuild works with several alternative and chartered public schools in the metro area. They need to work with schools that have built-in flexibility because the program involves students working on construction full time, every other week for much of the school year.

Along with several charter and alternative schools, Tree Trust YouthBuild works with students from the District 287 collaborative, whose members include the Brooklyn Center, Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Orono, Osseo, Richfield, Robbinsdale, St Louis Park, Wayzata and Westonka districts.

The construction program is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Labor and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In addition to the home construction projects, Tree Trust YouthBuild offers a tree care track, allowing participants “to train for jobs in the high demand green industry. Tree Trust YouthBuild provides participants with all of the training and equipment necessary for the program,” according to Gavrilov.

Tree Trust is more than 45 years old. It welcomes inquiries from other schools serving Minneapolis students interested in a possible collaboration. More information is available at:

Jada and Zavion love building homes. They agree that the home construction program is, as Zavion explained, “life-changing.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at Joe@centerforschool