Sisters foundation helping Blue River heal
Last updated 10/19/2021 at Noon
“For Sale” signs are abundant throughout the McKenzie River Valley town of Blue River, in the wake of the devastating Holiday Farm Fire that tore through the valley on Labor Day 2020, burning 144,000 acres. The steep hills on either side of Blue River, once covered in timber, now host blackened tree skeletons, devoid of any life.
Miraculously, thanks to the amazing work of firefighters, McKenzie High School was spared. Residents who were unable to evacuate were instructed to go to the center of the football field where they were sprayed by fire hoses to protect them from the advancing fire. It is estimated that of the almost 200 students in K-12 in the district, 153 were displaced following the fire, with about a quarter of the students and a third of the staff of 50 completely losing their homes.
After the fire, Erin Borla, executive director of the Roundhouse Foundation, heard about a project that had been undertaken by Lee Kounovsky, the director of the Construction Trades Program for the Lane County Education Service District (ESD) to benefit families in Blue River. He instructed shop students in Eugene how to build 8-by-8-foot sheds for Blue River residents for storing their belongings or to live in after losing their homes to the fire.
Borla called and asked, “How can we help?”
With Roundhouse Foundation funds, a small project became larger. Eleven Lane County district high school teachers and one middle school teacher were trained by the ESD how to build the sheds. So far, 27 sheds have been placed in Blue River. Kounovsky also teaches at Lane Community College, and they constructed four sheds. Churches and the community added another 40.
Jerry’s Home Improvement Center in Eugene contributed $5,000 to the project and, with the Roundhouse funds, the project was able to absorb the rising cost of lumber. When they began building the sheds, it cost $800 for materials per shed, which doubled to $1,600 months later.
Kounovsky pointed out that the Lane ESD encompasses very different areas, including Eugene in the valley on one side and the western Cascades on the other side up into the McKenzie River Valley where there is a higher percentage of disadvantaged students.
“Sisters being part of the mountain community makes the Roundhouse funds so appropriate. Erin (Borla) was very warm and put her personal energy into this project,” Kounovsky said.
Beyond materials for the sheds, the Roundhouse Foundation addressed the emotional needs of the students in Blue River by providing money to purchase art supplies for the creation of large, round painted canvasses depicting life in Blue River prior to the fire and after.
This past summer, high school students (some who had never painted before) met with local artists to discuss how they had been impacted by the fire, and then set about creating their own representations of before and after the fire. One of the murals is of the community market and restaurant before they were lost to the fire. A blue McKenzie River edged by large evergreens is seen in another. The one that stops the viewer cold is a charred scene of blackened trees backed by menacing orange and yellow
On Saturday, September 11, students, parents, school district and ESD personnel, and community members gathered at the high school to view the first five murals, which were then installed on sheds along Blue River Drive through town. Borla, her son Frankie, and Roundhouse cofounder and trustee Kathy Deggendorfer were in attendance to see the progress and received sincere thank-yous for their contribution and collaboration.
The project was a collaboration of Lane ESD, Jerry’s Home Improvement Center in Eugene, McKenzie School District personnel, Pivot Architects of Eugene, students, local artists, and the Roundhouse Foundation. It is that collaboration and community building that the Roundhouse Foundation looks for in its