For any town, losing 120 homes and 8 commercial buildings within 24 hours would be a disaster. For the residents of Malden, Washington – population 293 – the Babb Road Fire was a catastrophe, wiping out the entire business district and destroying properties that had been in families for generations. By the end of Labor Day weekend in 2020, the town was a smoking ruin.

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The town of Malden, population 293, was devastated by a wildfire over Labor Day weekend in 2020. Photo credit: Richie Brower

In nearby Spangle, help emerged from an unexpected source, kids ages 10 through 14. The Pathfinders Club is a department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) that works with the cultural, social and religious education of children and teens. In Spangle, club members had been thinking about ways to support the community during the pandemic when the fire struck. “We started brainstorming ways to help,” explains Scott Rivas, a senior project manager with SCJ Alliance and a Pathfinders leader. “One of our leaders, Richie Brower, set up a meeting between the kids and the mayor, and the city clerk, and we took a tour of the town. We were walking through ashes, including what had been their city park.”

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Members of the Pathfinders group learned about engineering and designing a new park from SCJ Alliance Senior Project Manager Scott Rivas, one of the group’s leaders. Photo credit: Scott Rivas

It didn’t take long for the group to conclude that a new park for Malden residents, especially families, was a project they could all get behind. As a first step, Rivas brought in Kenneth Van Voorhis of SPVV Landscape Architects to explain the planning process and share how to “vision” a project. “He put papers all over the wall and started chicken scratching,” says Rivas. “The kids’ ideas were everywhere.”

One of the next steps was evaluating ideas based on an understanding of community needs and the budget they had to work with. “They needed something low maintenance and they don’t have a big tax base,” Rivas says. “We wanted to create something family-oriented because there are a lot of families living in the town of Malden.”

The process was similar to experiences with other SCJ Alliance projects but also different in key ways. “You approach the problem in the same way by brainstorming ideas, evaluating them and coming up with a realistic solution,” Rivas notes, “but it was slower because the kids had less background so there was an educational aspect to it. I realized that they weren’t going to see things the same way I did, and that’s a good thing.”

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The group presented two potential plans to the Malden City Council and the mayor and will be seeking more public input before creating a final plan. Photo credit: Scott Rivas

By April 2021, the group was ready to present two different plans to the Malden Town Council at a virtual meeting. Several weeks later during a regional Pathfinders meeting, a larger group visited the town to help with cleaning up and planting shrubs when they got a surprise. “Someone came up and said, ‘We need your kids. We have a tent for your club, and we have citizens who are ready to hear their presentation,’” Rivas recalls.  “It was totally unexpected. They presented the best they could in an impromptu exchange with the town citizens, and did a fantastic job.”

The experience has been a learning curve and a stretch for Pathfinders. Aside from a better understanding of engineering and public speaking, they’ve also gained project management knowledge. “I’ve learned how much money it takes to build a playground,” says club member Sam Cromwell. “Also, how much work it takes to make sure a playground is safe and within requirements, and how hard it is to get everyone on board for the same plan when they have such different ideas. I’m looking forward to the awesome park, knowing that I helped design and build it.”

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The Pathfinders, who range in age from 10 to 14, have taken on the challenge of designing a new park for Malden residents. Photo credit: Richie Brower

Fellow Pathfinder Kaitlyn Rivas has found the process inspiring. “The most rewarding thing is that we’re helping the community rebuild a safe and lively place for kids and adults to relax,” she says. “I’m looking forward to seeing little kids who will probably never be the same because their home was burned, playing on the playground and having the time of their lives – and knowing that I helped with it and made someone’s life a bit better.”

Rivas has seen the club members grow throughout the project as they continued to tackle new challenges. “The greatest thing they can take away from this is confidence,” he says. “It has helped them gain self-confidence in their leadership capabilities.”

The next step will be soliciting more input from Malden residents about the two park plans. In the fall, SCJ Alliance will be developing a master plan that encompasses both Malden and Pine City, also impacted by the fire, with a goal of finalizing it over the winter and beginning to build in spring 2022. Funding for the park will come through private donations, support from  United Way of Whitman County, public project funding sources and donations raised by Hope Builders, a nonprofit organization Pathfinder leader Richie Brower founded in 2018 to connect young people with community needs.

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At the one-year anniversary of the fire, a regional group of Pathfinders gathered to clear trash and install plants around the town. Photo credit: Richie Brower

In addition to the park plans, Pathfinders have also rebuilt lawn mowers for Malden residents and built coat racks for the many clothing donations the town has received. “I think the kids have learned that you can serve your community in a variety of ways,” says Rivas. “They’ve realized that they can make a difference.”

The kids also got a taste of the type of jobs people have, from engineering to planning to public outreach. For folks a few years down the road on their careers, SCJ has a number of positions currently open. To find out more, visit SCJ’s website.