GUERNSEY – The large, white block building that stands just a half-block south of U.S. Highway 26 in Guernsey, Wyoming looms large in this small community. Built so many years ago that most locals can’t even tell you when, the stories it could tell if walls could talk would be a local history lesson in itself.
Once a feed store, a dance hall and the site of many community gatherings and events, most residents living here now know it as the home to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4471 and their Auxiliary.
The basement, with a full kitchen and a bar, is used regularly for everything from VFW business to Sunday morning breakfasts and afternoon Bingo games, community fundraisers, wedding receptions, auctions and class reunions.
The building’s upstairs is big and open; benches line the walls around a now worn, wooden dance floor; the stage ready and waiting for the musicians to tune up and play. It is as close to a community center as can be found in this town and its presence would be sorely missed if ever lost.
But as is often the case with large, older buildings, insulation is minimal; utilities and regular maintenance can eat up budget dollars quickly, especially in Wyoming’s winters, and the summer heat sends internal temps much too high for indoor activity. With additional issues such as ADA access, lack of updated rest rooms and poor lighting, the use of the upstairs was seasonal at best and somewhat limited at that.
For the members of the VFW and VFW Auxiliary, this building is so much more than just a meeting place or a community center. With an aging but dedicated membership, they have persevered, volunteering hundreds of hours to make sure the VFW and the role it carries in the community is there for generations to come. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed and in 2017, help came from an unexpected source.
It began as a project visualized by Guernsey-Sunrise Industrial Tech teacher Troy Reichert, who established a Skilled Trades class and was looking for a way to teach those skills in a hands-on setting on actual job sites. Through extended discussion between Guernsey-Sunrise Schools, the Town of Guernsey and the VFW Post 4471, the upper portion of the building was targeted as a under-utilized facility that could meet many needs within the community if some major renovations could be done. After assessing the needs and developing a plan, Reichert and his students wrote several grants in hopes of securing the funding to begin the transformation. Over the past two years, The Home Depot Foundation, Harbor Freight’s Tools for Schools program and the Wyoming Department of Education have provided over $15,000; the project was underway, and in the fall of 2017, work began.
Reichert and his students began with a complete renovation of the upstairs restrooms. During the 2018-2019 school year, they continued with the replacement of windows, improved the lighting and built a storage room for medical equipment the VFW loans out to veterans and community members as needed.
It was all a great start, but the lion’s share of the work still needed would also be the most costly—ADA access and a new entryway to the front of the building, refinishing the wooden floors, an interior facelift for the interior and stage, the addition of insulation in the walls and ceiling and a new HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system that could make the building viable year-round remained.
With no way for the post to raise that kind of funding, Reichert knew being able to finish the project would hinge on obtaining a significant grant. In the spring of 2019, he applied for a grant through the Daniels Fund and in July, was notified that the school had been awarded a $70,000 grant for the VFW project. Reichert said there were a lot of relieved faces when he was able to report that news to members of the VFW. “I kind of messed with them a little,” said Reichert. “There was a higher award that we didn’t get so when I went to talk to them, I started by saying we didn’t get approved for the $85,000 award, letting them think we didn’t get anything.” After an agonizing few seconds, he changed the mood considerably by telling them they had been approved instead for the $70,000 award.
Post Commander Steve Keigley said the members of the post were very appreciative of Reichert’s efforts. “Now we can offer the building to the community for use year-round which should help out. We aren’t in this to make money but we do have to get enough to cover the expenses. This is going to make a big difference in how much we have to charge. We want it to be reasonable so the community can afford to use it—that’s the goal—the reason we wanted to do all of this.”
And, the Daniels award may be just the beginning of the good news. For the second straight year, Reichert has also qualified as a semi-finalist Harbor Freight’s Tools for Schools competition. He was chosen by an independent panel of judges from among a field of 749 skilled trades teachers who applied for the prize. The semifinalists—some competing as individuals and some as teacher teams—hail from 26 states and specialize in trades including manufacturing, welding, construction, automotive and agriculture mechanics.
“We never cease to be amazed by the talent, creativity and resourcefulness of skilled trades educators,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “This year’s semifinalists teach more than a dozen trades and have spent a collective 800 years in the classroom—teaching our students critical skills that our country needs—and we couldn’t be more excited to honor their work.”
In 2018, the school was awarded a $1,000 gift card and they are already assured of that for this year as well, but if he finishes as one of the top three this year, he would come away with a check for $70,000 for the school and an additional $30,000 of his own. Places 4-18 take home a $35,000/$15,000 split. That answer will come October 24th.
In the meantime, the new trades class is already hitting it hard—literally. Last Tuesday, students donned hard hats and safety vests and began the demolition outside on the front entrance way. With sledgehammers that will be replaced by new jackhammers purchased through some of the funding, the crew will be taking off a concrete and brick double stairway and landing. The hope is to complete all of the exterior work in the next six weeks before winter weather becomes a threat.
Though not one to beat his own drum, Reichert has made a huge impact in his 11 years as the Industrial Technology instructor at Guernsey-Sunrise.
In addition to the VFW project, he was also involved in a building project in conjunction with Camp Guernsey. He is a recent recipient of the Arch Coal Teacher of the Year and the Wyoming VFW Teacher of the Year and finished in the top five in the country.
Throughout his welding, woods, construction, residential wiring, plumbing courses, Reichert has matched his curriculum with Eastern Wyoming College. That allows students to earn college credits for their work on the project.
He began a SkillsUSA program at the school in 2009 and in the past 10 school years has given a number of students practical experience through building projects for community members and items for the holiday bazaar. Evidence of his students’ efforts can also be found around the Guernsey-Sunrise Stadium. Using a plasma cutter, cutouts of the Viking logo and team names adorn the outside of the press box and fences. This past spring, the team sent five students to the state competition where The trio of Destiny Covington, TyLinn Cooper, and Jayden Butler brought home a state championship in the Community Service competition. They gave a 10-minute presentation outlining the work of the VFW project.
Dakota Conner also placed, finishing third in the Welding Sculpture competition, helping the team finish as the state runner-up in total points scored in the 1A/2A high school division. Nearly 600 students from across the state attended the conference this year.
The VFW project has been a work in progress and will continue throughout this school year, with May or June as the projected finish date. Updated information and photos are posted regularly on two Facebook pages located at:. G-S Vikings for Veterans and Guernsey-Sunrise SkillsUSA Chapter.
The VFW renovation project is an outstanding example of what can be accomplished when vision, commitment and cooperation come together. Each component—the teacher and his students willing to do the work, the community members who have honored the veterans and envisioned the future—and the people and entities whose financial gifts are willingly shared—each possess what it takes to make life better for others.
And now, from the building whose walls hold stories untold, this is one that will speak for itself for many years to come.