Dismayed by the devastation wildfires wrought in his hometown, senior Brayden Preskenis picked up a hammer and got to work.
Throughout the hot, dry summers, Whitman College senior Brayden Preskenis can be found backpacking through the Eastern Oregon mountains. It was during these trips that he first observed the effects of wildfires.
Although the Biology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BBMB) major recognizes the natural processes taking place through wildfire and their benefits to forests that have long been suppressed of any fires at all, he admits it’s been difficult to see his favorite wilderness areas burn, leaving behind patchwork landscapes over the years.
“I always see the destruction of natural beauty as sad,” says Preskenis.
Wildfires have always been something that happened a safe distance away from the region of Southern Oregon where Preskenis grew up, in the places he visits on backpacking trips. That changed in late summer 2020, when the fires came too close to home.
Just a month into his senior year at Whitman, Preskenis was living in off-campus with a few close friends. His days were filled with studying for his molecular biology and physics classes and writing his thesis on research he’d conducted over the summer.
On Sept. 8, he received a phone call from his dad. “Have you seen the news?” he asked. Preskenis, noting the urgency in his father’s voice, felt his heart drop.
“The Rogue Valley is on fire, Brayden,” his dad said. Because the cell phone connection was patchy, his father’s words were garbled and Preskenis couldn’t find out much more than that dad was safe, gathered in the parking lot of a Medford elementary school with many others who had fled their homes.
“I was sad and depressed about everything that was happening and about my lack of ability to help,” Preskenis says. He thought about driving home, but between the COVID-19 risks and his busy senior-year schedule, it wasn’t a feasible option.
From Helpless to Hopeful
As the smoke from the Rogue Valley wildfires clogged the skies above Walla Walla, Preskenis realized there was something he could do for his community, something he knew how to do very well because he’s done it before: He would build a tiny house on a trailer in Walla Walla and drive it to Ashland, Oregon, where it would become the home of a family who had lost theirs in the fire.
“I had been working on small building projects throughout the pandemic, so the jump from those projects to building a tiny house to donate was super exciting,” says Preskenis. “I was thrilled that it could be meaningful and something that a family in my community needed.”
Preskenis had built a tiny house for his high school senior project. In his Whitman admission essay, he wrote about how the tiny house's smaller footprint reduced the environmental impact and how the building process strengthened his construction skills.
But when Preskenis began planning for his second tiny house, he met a few obstacles.
“I felt like I could do most of the manual labor. I have amazing housemates who were eager to help and I knew many friends in the Whitman community that would get out there and swing a hammer with me, but finances for the tiny house were an issue that needed to be solved.”
Preskenis took the first step, purchasing the trailer that would become the foundation for the home. Then he decided to create an online fundraiser.
What happened next was Preskenis’s second shock of the semester: Donations for his tiny home project poured in from the Whitman and Walla Walla communities.
“I wasn’t expecting that my friends at Whitman would donate as well. I know funds are tight when you're a student.”
The greater Walla Walla community also stepped up with material support. From his previous construction projects, Preskenis knew Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace can be great for finding building materials, so he decided to use them as sources for the Ashland tiny house project too. He’d see a window or a door that he needed for the tiny house and would reach out to the local seller, explaining why he was building the tiny house and who it would help.
“When I shared the story and told them about my community, everyone was open to changing the price or even completely donating the materials,” says Preskenis. Many people have continued to help him out; one Walla Walla contractor calls every time he has extra building materials left over from a project.
Although Walla Walla is 500 miles from the Oregon cities affected by the fire, Preskenis says the tiny house project proved they’re “connected through their community support.”
“My goal, my hope from the start was to give back. And 50 donors—family, friends and community members—have given back with me” Preskenis says, adding that his housemates, seniors Maamoon Saleh and Craig Brunner and sophomore Ben Daume, were instrumental in the building process.
“In high school when I built my tiny house, I was learning all these new skills from my dad and YouTube videos. It’s crazy now, being the most experienced person on the ‘construction site’. Maamoon and Craig have been so enthusiastic about learning how to build, it’s always so fun to work with them. I know I won’t soon forget when we all hammered the last wall into place as the November rain soaked us to the bone.”
Community Rises from the Ashes
As the fall semester came to an end, Preskenis made the nine-hour drive to Ashland, arriving home at 3 a.m. “It didn’t register for me. If it had been light outside, I would’ve seen all the devastation. Instead, it was dark and it was easy to forget what happened, because I hadn’t been there.”
The next day, Preskenis got his first look at the devastation in his community. The tiny house he built in high school is now occupied by a local family who lost their home. Preskenis's family lives in the basement and garage of their house. Three families displaced by the fire live upstairs. This living arrangement is just one example of the ways in which the people in his community who didn’t lose their homes have responded by providing housing for those who did.
“It is amazing how the community has all come together to do their best to help one another and to provide support for those who need it the most.” Preskenis says.
When Preskenis built his first tiny house, he wasn’t thinking about community impact—it was about saving money, learning construction skills and having a small environmental impact footprint. The difference now is emotional for Preskenis, “It’s only one home. It’s not the thousands of homes that are needed, but it’s what I can do. With the aid of my family, friends and the Whitman community, I am doing everything I can to help my community rebuild.”
On May 28, 2021, Preskenis contacted Whitman Magazine with exciting news about the tiny house he built:
"After 850 hours of work and $7,250 the tiny house is finished and has its new home and owners! ... This project would not have been a reality and this home could not have been built without all of your help. I can not thank [the Whitman community] enough."