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Nellysford senior turns virtual school projects into a business

LYNCHBURG — Keaton Howard, of Nellysford, has transformed what started as a class project into a business venture.

“I’ve always liked working with my hands. I’ve always had some interest in woodworking. It’s kind of become a passion out here just because it’s what I’m doing every day now,” Howard said.

Howard said he’s gone from doing one project a week for his carpentry class at the Miller School of Albemarle, which is a requirement to pass, to completing several projects per week.

His mother, Jennifer Howard, said it all started when he made a raised flower garden that she then posted pictures of online.

After that initial Facebook post, she said comments started flooding in, asking if Howard could build other items.

“We decided to take some photos and put ads on Nelson Knows, Nextdoor and Facebook marketplace for our county to see if anyone would support his new adventure and help him do some projects he needed for his class,” Jennifer Howard said. “The response was overwhelming.”

Nelson Knows is a popular public Facebook group for Nelson County and Nextdoor is a social networking platform that can be used for people to exchange goods.

Keaton Howard said he was equally surprised by the amount of support his raised flower bed had received.

“My dad and I, we didn’t really think it would blow up, but my mom was talking about how people would need [flower beds] and people started making all these requests,” he said.

Jennifer Howard said her son received so many orders that he hired a friend to help.

“I was thrilled with his accomplishments. He learned a new trade, developed his carpentry skills, learned time management, communication/sales skills and really was able to step into his own,” Jennifer Howard said in an email.

Keaton Howard’s teacher at the Miller School, Al Hanson, said he has found himself facing the unprecedented challenge of leading a woodworking class — a traditionally hands-on experience — online, given school closures as a result of COVID-19.

To accommodate the different circumstances of his students, he’s given them the choice of either completing projects based on what they have available to them, like what Howard is doing, or completing online assignments.

For those completing projects, Hanson outlined three requirements: to make a 3-D computer model of what they want to build, build the project and then complete a portfolio describing what they did.

However, Hanson said Howard has gone above and beyond what was required for his class.

“He says he’s doing it for my class, but this is all him. It’s his idea, his time, his initiative. He completed the requirements for my class a while ago, but he’s still doing it,” Hanson said in an email.

Hanson estimated some 60% to 70% of students in his class choose to complete at-home projects rather than do the online coursework. Normally, projects would be done in the classroom based on the student’s skill level.

Since Howard started taking orders for others about a month ago, he said flower beds are the most popular thing he makes, which can cost about $200 or more depending on whether soil is included. He estimated he’s made about a couple dozen so far.

“I can probably make them in about 30 minutes now. It could also be just because that’s what I’ve made the most,” Howard said. “I have all the measurements down in my head and I know what I need.”

He’s also received requests for benches and compost bins. He said people also have approached him to build a bunk bed and to complete some fencing work.

“I would say the compost bins are the most frustrating things to make, though. They’re heavy and hard to move,” he said.

Howard said one reason why his business venture has received the feedback it has is because, “everyone is trapped at home right now and people don’t have anything to do other than garden.”

When determining how much to charge, Howard said it is a combination of the cost of lumber and labor. He mostly delivers the things he makes, going as far as an hour away from home to make the deliveries.

Other projects, depending on the size and the amount of labor and materials that go into them, can go for anywhere from $300 to $500.

In the fall, Howard will begin the next chapter of his life at Liberty University — following in the footsteps of his two older siblings — although he’s unsure what field of study he wants to pursue.

Right now, he’s got it narrowed down to two choices: He can either study trades and business — something akin to what his older brother studied — or he might also pursue a career as a veterinarian, as he’s always had an interest in working with animals.

“I got this going now and it could become something bigger in the future,” he said.

Howard said he plans to continue fulfilling orders — so long as requests keep coming in — during the summer until he starts at Liberty.


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