Peering inside an old blue school bus in 2016, Julie Akins was surprised to see the seats ripped out, mattresses on the floor, and a family with seven children living inside. This isn’t right, she thought, her heart breaking as she noticed the family had no kitchen or bathroom. Julie, an Ashland, Oregon, writer, was working on a book about homelessness.
She’d talked to many families who, often due to job loss or illness, had found themselves living on the streets. I keep writing about this and no one does anything, she thought in frustration. Seeing the desperation on this family’s faces, she decided, Maybe it’s time for me to do more than write about it. Maybe it’s time for me to take action.
A Unique Solution
Meeting the school-bus family got the wheels rolling in Julie’s mind. What if we converted old school buses into affordable homes? she thought. It will be like living in an RV, and if a job came along and they had to move, folks could take their home with them.
Julie knew her hometown retired school buses each year and offered them up for sale to the public. She felt so strongly about this project that she dug into her savings and bought one for $5,000. Now, how to renovate it? she wondered. And when she shared her idea to turn it into a home for a needy family on her blog, she immediately received an amazing donation of $25,000 from a woman she didn’t even know. That generous gift enabled Julie to hire a builder and buy materials.
As word of Julie’s efforts spread, the local news did a story on her project, which sparked more donations of skills, materials, money — and also hope in the hearts of struggling families.
Jennifer Flood, her husband, David, and their three kids — Raylee, 12, David Jr., 10, and Noah, 3 — were living in their car when they saw the story.
Maybe this is our chance to start over, Jennifer thought, hope filling her heart for the first time in a long time.
A Place to Call Home
Like most, Jennifer and David never imagined they would become homeless. David was working as a substitute teacher while he finished his master’s degree. But Jennifer couldn’t work because of health issues, and when they fell too far behind in rent, their landlord evicted them.
They lived in a tent throughout the summer of 2018 but had to leave when the campgrounds closed for repairs. With nowhere else to go, they lived in their car. Now…“Let’s apply for a bus house,” Jennifer urged. “Okay,” David agreed, “but with so many families in need, the odds are really against us. We shouldn’t get our hopes up.”
But when Julie read their story, the Floods were exactly the kind of family she wanted to help. They were hardworking people who just fell on hard times. Julie was excited as she called to tell Jennifer and David they’d be the first to move into one of her converted buses.
Thrilled, the couple counted the days until their new home was ready. And when Julie took them on a walkthrough, they gasped in awe. The interior had wood flooring, wood paneling, a full kitchen, a bath, and bunk beds for the kids. It had a wood stove and tile in the bathroom. The bus had also been equipped with solar heat and a water tank. “Do you want us to paint the outside of the bus?” Julie asked the ecstatic family. “No!” they all chimed in unison. “We love to sing, ‘We all live in a yellow submarine.’ Now, it’s true!” Jennifer laughed.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2018, the family moved into their new home, located in an Ashland recreational vehicle park. And today, Jennifer and David are working out plans to buy the bus from Julie. After one year of living rent-free, all families who receive a “skoolie” will be given that option. They can also choose to stay and pay a very affordable rent.
Today, Julie’s Family Bus Home Foundation is an official nonprofit, and volunteers are in the process of converting two more buses, both donated by her school district, into homes on wheels. And with thousands in Oregon having lost homes during wildfires last fall, and the coronavirus pandemic costing people jobs, she sees her mission as more important than ever and hopes other communities will get on board.
“This project is where compassion becomes proactive,” Julie says. “We all need to work together to help one another. A rising tide helps raise all boats. My goal is to help families rise above their circumstances. Here’s my hand, grab it, and let me help you.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.