Strength Through Friendship: Pe Ell Seniors Rebuild School Weight Room

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Pe Ell seniors Kollin Jurek and Joey McCalden have seen some tough times, but through it all, their friendship kept them going. 

They met on the Pe Ell School playground in preschool. This was appropriate because physical activity would come to be the centerpiece of their relationship. 

Just before the pandemic, McCalden was a junior serving as the vice president of the school’s associated student body. As such, he felt a responsibility to be a leader and improve his school. 

He searched for a way to help, and his best friend volunteered to join. 

Being ambitious young men, the two took on the project they felt was the most important one they could find: the weight room. 

Decades ago, this room hosted a weight lifting class. Even in those days, it wasn’t anything close to luxury. When the boys took stock of it last year, what they saw was “honestly kind of a really big mess,” said McCalden. 

Torn upholstery topped the already worn down equipment. Some of the equipment was completely broken and just strewn around. The walls had never been more than bare plywood. 

They had their work cut out for them.

But the duo already learned hard work by lifting weights to train for their sports. McCalden played basketball and baseball, and took up football in his final two years of school, while Jurek played all three since he could pick up a ball. 

The more time they spent in the weight room, the more they loved it. 

For both of them, the strength they gained there — both physical strength and the strengthening of their friendship — would come to help them through their greatest challenges.

At age 13, McCalden was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. 

“I battled quite a few years untreated. So I’d say I probably got it when I was around nine or 10,” McCalden said. “Those were my worst years because I had no idea what was going on. I thought it was normal, and I just didn’t have any answers.” 

McCalden had surgery to remove 4.5 inches of his small intestine after his eighth-grade year.

“With Joey, he has shown me a lot of what life’s about,” Jurek said. “When I found out about (him having Crohn’s) it was kind of tough for me, so I couldn’t imagine what it was like for him. But, to see how far he’s come, it motivates me to become someone better.” 

Jurek supported his friend through his illness by motivating him to exercise. McCalden thanks him for that, because lifting weights empowered him. 

“I realized that I’m different than a lot of people. I have a rare disease,” McCalden said. “So I need to focus on myself and I need to not make excuses for myself, and that’s what weight lifting has taught me.”

For Jurek, 2020 brought hardship. The pandemic took away his favorite outlet — school athletics. Then, a knee injury playing football ended his high school sports career. Much like his best friend, lifting weights gave him a proactive way to cope. 

Rebuilding the weight room was their opportunity to offer that empowerment and joy to others. 

They started with a presentation to their school board. At first, it was just going to be reinforcing and repainting the walls. The board gave them the go-ahead. Phelps Construction, a Pe Ell business, donated the materials, including paint, plywood and trim. 

After that was done, the boys presented to the school board again, this time asking for funding for the equipment. 

“We found a magazine of equipment and went through that four or five times,” McCalden said. “Yeah,” Jurek added. “It was like a kid in a candy store.” 

ASB advisor and Pe Ell school counselor Stasha Magruder barely had to help. She set up the meetings, but the presentations were entirely created and executed by Jurek and McCalden. According to her, presentation skills are just another on their long list of talents. 

The school board said yes, again. 

It was no surprise when, for their senior years, McCalden took the role of ASB president with Jurek taking over as vice president. Their project continued, with 90% of the work taking place outside of school. 

The boys would come into the weight room after team practices and stay until 8 p.m. Or they’d get up early in the morning on a Saturday and spend the day working. Occasionally, they would recruit a student volunteer to help out, but besides those times, it was all their labor.

In the end, Jurek and McCalden spent a cumulative 100 hours fixing up the weight room, and it shows. 

The seniors went beyond making sure everything is usable again and the equipment is up-to-date. The walls are whimsically painted with the school colors. There are motivational quotes painted on signs. For the first time in a long time, the weight room is as welcoming as the students who worked on it. 

When spring sports settle down, the two have one final proposition to present: Pe Ell School should have weights class again. 

“If we were to get that weight lifting class, that would honestly be a dream come true for us,” Jurek said. 

“We saw how much weight lifting benefitted us,” McCalden said, “and we wanted to spread that throughout the school and the community.”

After an approved application from the district, community members will also be able to use the weight room. The seniors are excited this will make weight training more accessible to people who can’t afford a gym membership. 

Jurek and McCalden will graduate valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. 

Jurek is deciding between two options for his higher education: Centralia College to play baseball, or the University of Washington. He hopes to eventually become a physical therapist. 

McCalden plans on attending Centralia College before moving on to a university, and afterward, grad school. His dream job is to be a math teacher. 

“This whole experience was honestly probably the biggest high school accomplishment,” Jurek  said. “It made me realize that no matter what you’re going through if you really pull through and you have a goal and you really aim for it and go for it, you can make it happen.” 

McCalden added, “To do good things, to give back to your community, it does take time away from your hobbies … You have to really just go above and beyond.”

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