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Rebuilt and ready for a family: Students finish restoring Sterling home

STERLING – A house on Fourth Avenue proved to be the perfect practice ground for Jonathan Landis before he goes on to rebuild homes devastated by disasters across the nation.

The Sterling High School senior is one of 150 students who worked to restore every inch of the century-old, 2,800 square-foot home at 505 Fourth Ave. during the past 3 years through the Whiteside Area Career Center’s building trades program.

In the past 3 decades, students have built 18 houses from scratch and rehabilitated five.

The students who attended the open house for the nearly completed project Thursday shared a common motivation for joining the program.

“I just like working with my hands, and I wanted to get out of the classroom,” Landis said. “It’s kind of dying off, knowing how to do these trades.”

Landis plans to take the skills he’s learned and apply them in the disaster management program at Heston College in Heston, Kansas, which partners with the Mennonite Disaster Service to repair, rebuild and recover homes.

“It’s something I want to do because it feels good to help someone out and give them a new start at life,” he said.

Ashley Knopp, a Dixon High School senior and one of three girls in this year’s batch of 50 students, wanted to expand on her building skills after taking metal and woodworking classes at DHS.

“I think it’s important when you grow up to know what’s happening with your house and how to fix it,” she said.

Seeing the full picture of the completed work – minus some electrical covers, counter tops and a few other punch-list items – provided a stunning contrast to the project’s beginning when students were lugging around drywall, cabinets and flooring, she said.

“It’s quite a different view,” she said. “I think it was an all-around good experience.”

Knopp plans to study agriculture at Highland Community College in Freeport.

Among the many different tasks bringing the house in shape, slaving over the trim was a common challenge for the students.

“You can’t be off at all or it’s going to show,” said Tyree Dillard, a senior at Newman Central Catholic High School.

He said there’s a sense of pride knowing every piece of work they’ve done has gone toward creating a home for a family.

“It’s a cool feeling that the family is going to know it came from us,” he said.

Dillard aims to either attend a lineman training school or Sauk Valley Community College before going to a 4-year university.

The three-story home has four bedrooms, four bathrooms and a basement. Instructor John Gehrke, who has taught building trades students at WACC for the past 29 years, said they found newspapers dating back to 1906 in the house, and guessed it was built around then.

Students filled dumpster after dumpster with the old guts of the home, created a new framework inside, redid electrical and plumbing systems, and replaced the roofs on the front and back porches, Gehrke said.

“We gutted the whole thing,” he said.

Newman junior Nick Nailor of Rock Falls said it’s gratifying to know the house was done right and will be put to good use.

His mom, Stacie Grennan, said she has already bought him some tools for helping with work around the house.

“He’s always been interested in how things work and how they get put together,” she said. “I’m proud of him, and they did some really great work here.”


Call 815-626-5810, go to or find the Whiteside Area Career Center on Facebook for more information about the Building Trades program.

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