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It takes an island: Mayne residents pool their skills to renovate house for teacher

Lack of housing on the island was hindering efforts to get another much-needed teacher at the school, so Mayne Islanders decided to take matters into their own hands

Marcus Down is settling into his new job as teacher and vice-principal at Mayne Island School, thanks in large part to a community effort that turned a crumbling three-bedroom house into a refurbished teachers’ residence.

Lack of housing on the island was hindering efforts to get another much-needed teacher at the school, so Mayne Islanders decided to take matters into their own hands and create a “teacherage” that new staff could call home.

That meant a full renovation for an old residence on school property that had morphed into a storage facility and workshop over the years.

The school has two classrooms, one for kindergarten to Grade 2 students and the other for Grades 3 to 7, and made do with two teachers — both island residents — before Down arrived.

Down said having a ready-made place to stay with a reasonable rent made all the difference in his decision to take the job on the island of about 1,200 full-time residents.

“It certainly helps with the transition,” said Down, who moved from Salt Spring Island with his wife and two children last month. They are currently housesitting while a few finishing touches are made to the teacherage.

Down, 37, said he had been living and teaching internationally for some time before his family decided to come back to Canada, and ended up in Qualicum and then on Salt Spring, where he was commuting to Nanaimo for a teaching job at Vancouver Island University.

He said he heard about the position before a planned round of recruiting was launched and decided it was for him.

“It was a good fit for our kids,” said Down, whose daughters are in Grade 1 and Grade 4 at the school. “There are 35 kids at the school, and I’m used to having my own kids at the school I teach at.”

His wife was already working in the Gulf Islands School District as a counsellor when he took the job on Mayne.

While the schools he taught in such countries as Vietnam, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates had up to 2,000 students, Down said he also enjoys the simple life a place like Mayne can offer.

“Everyone knows everyone, so it’s close-knit,” he said, adding the teacherage will be a temporary location for the family while they look for a house on Mayne. “Hopefully once we’re out of that house, another teacher can come and live there.”

School board trustee Deborah Luporini, who lives on Mayne, called the community effort to create the teacherage “a vibrant example of what a community can do when they come together with a common purpose.”

“It’s been a win-win-win all around.”

Luporini supplied a washer and dryer in good condition to the cause, while a dishwasher in perfect condition was found on the side of the road and an unneeded propane stove was sent to the fire department in exchange for an electric one.

“So donation, trade and free pile,” said parent advisory council chair Jackie Henry, one of the project’s leaders. “Very classic Mayne Island!”

Henry, who has a son in Grade 3 and a daughter in Grade 5, said having teachers who live on the island eliminates the challenges of commuting and allows them to be more involved in the community.

Down teaches the older students on Mondays, and P.E. to all students Tuesdays to Thursdays, helping with various other tasks while also taking on administration duties.

The school used to be the high school for the southern Gulf Islands and has amenities including a large gym and a full kitchen.

After students finish Grade 7 on Mayne, they can take Grades 8 to 10 on Pender Island, then move to Gulf Islands Senior Secondary on Salt Spring or Parkland Secondary in North Saanich, since some parents commute to jobs in and around Victoria.

Henry said the entire community has pitched in to help with the teacherage “in a million different ways,” including donating a heat pump and heating system and providing free drywalling, electrical work, plumbing and excavation. Materials were supplied at cost from the island’s Home Hardware store.

The home’s well was repaired by Red Williams, whose daughter Sara Bowles is a teacher at the school.

“He’s pretty much drilled every well on Mayne Island,” Henry said. “He’s an incredible guy.”

She said her husband, Alex, donated his expertise to design the project, the Capital Regional District provided a grant and former district superintendent Scott Benwell was a big supporter, as well.

Topping it all off, fundraising efforts on the island brought in more than $80,000.

“People donated anywhere from $5,000 to $50, whatever they could spare and whatever way they could help, they were helping,” Henry said. “It was just very heart-warming.”

She said the success of the project shows how important the school is to islanders.

“You have to have an elementary school here,” Henry said. “It’s so critical to the fabric of the community.”

jbell@timescolonist.com