Build Addicts: Then & Now with Sam & Alex of @specialskoolie
Names: Sam & Alex
YouTube: Special Skoolie
We are Special Skoolie, and we are made up of Alex (myself), a 31-year-old professional horseback rider turned skoolie freak and big sister and Sam, my 26-year-old brother who is along for the ride. In 2016, Sam suffered a fall from a hammock and severed his spinal cord at the C5 level, leaving him a quadriplegic meaning Sam lost sensation to all four of his limbs.
After a few years and tons of hard work in therapy, Sam has gained sensation and movement in his upper arms allowing him to push his own wheelchair and use adaptive tools to feed himself. Those abilities are essential in his work towards independence but his journey is still a long and difficult one. You see, Sam has daily challenges most able-bodied people don’t think twice about in their day to day activities: accessing a public building, filling a glass of water, or even opening a door. But arguably the most commonly overlooked and difficult challenge Sam faces is travel.
As a full-time wheelchair user, a life of exploring and adventure is nearly impossible. Whether he is faced with the exorbitant cost of accessibility rentals or the inconvenience of airline travel, a life of excursion is one most wheelchair users never get to experience.
In the summer of 2018, I began researching nomadic lifestyles as a way of life for myself. I discovered skoolies and found a way I could have tons of space and include my little brother in on the adventure, AND they had wheelchair lifts already on board?? SIGN US UP!
Fast forward to April 16 of 2019, when we brought home our very own school bus. We quickly learned that we were significantly in over our heads and extremely green in most of the necessary areas. But we were stoked and that was all that mattered. This bus was going to be so much more than just a 40’ tiny home on wheels, it was a mission. We had big dreams of making travel accessible for other handicapped people.
Fast forward to November 2019. A very good friend of ours was looking for a bus of her own but was bogged down in the search. Our friend, Jordan, is a vibrant 26-year-old with a degree in graphic design and was eager for a life on the road. Jordan has a very rare muscular degenerative disease that forces her to live with a full-time feeding tube and breathing apparatus in addition to a big bulky powered wheelchair. Like Sam, Jordan dreams of a world beyond her limitations.
We knew we wanted to help, so we did some brainstorming and responded the only way we knew how- we offered her our skoolie! As she drove off, we were back to the drawing board. We were school bus shopping for the second time, and, boy, were things different! It’s been four months since we brought our second bus home and we feel fortunate that we have more experience this time around. We thought it might be helpful to address some common conversion questions with a twist: how would we have answered them then, and how will we answer them now, so that you have the opportunity to see just how things have evolved for us, and possibly learn from our experience.
How did you find the bus and what did the search and buying process look like?
THEN: We made our highest priority a working wheelchair lift that was either in the front or middle of the bus. Much past that, we were unsure of what more we’d need. Because we were so naive, we reached out to a bus broker. After meeting and asking our questions, we left the search up to the professionals. Something interesting we learned was that each bus is built specifically for its route. One example would be that some buses spend their days on highways and are geared higher while others operate on hilly terrain and are geared lower. This is something to consider when you are planning what type of traveling you will do. Because we plan to drive the bus cross country primarily, we narrowed our choice to a highway bus.
NOW: After we sold the first bus, I (Alex) had nearly completed a diesel technician program and had been converting the first bus for about 8 months. We naturally used that knowledge and experience when listing out our new priorities for the next bus, and at the top of that list was a more powerful engine and a bus in need of less cosmetic work. I had spent a lot of my time learning and working on Cummins engines and the two predominant Cummins options in school buses were the 5.9L or the 8.3L engine. We narrowed our search to the bigger engine and allowed the rest to work itself out. This time around, we weren't even looking for a bus with a wheelchair lift, thinking we would fabricate our own in during the build. Luckily enough the bus we found with the engine we wanted, also included a functioning middle placed wheelchair lift. The bus was located in Tempe Arizona and in pristine condition. The desert climate is wonderful for preserving buses, and we would strongly recommend refining your search to the Southwest region.
What has the reality of the build been for you guys?
THEN: Oh boy were we naive. The very first purchase we made for the first bus was a pneumatic angle grinder that was about twenty bucks from Harbor Freight and came with some tiny metal cutting blades and we thought we had snagged a deal! I started on day one with the grinder and a compressor in the very back of the bus, hacking at massive bolts. The compressor never stopped rattling and the grinder had barely enough power. By the second day, I realized it was going to take me three weeks working at that rate just to get the seats out. I think that day or the next, we bought an electric angle grinder and it has been the best investment we have made to this day. I was so frustrated at the idea of people who were demo’ing their buses in a weekend on YouTube. A weekend?? Are you kidding?? It took me hours to get two bolts out. The best advice I give new bus builders is to buy an electric angle grinder and hold on to it- you’ll need it long after you cut out seat bolts and even after demo. But more importantly, spend the money to buy the right tools.
NOW: One thing we learned very quickly: NOTHING IS PERMANENT. For example, our water inlet was cut into the second bus in the wrong place the first time around. What was a gaping hole, was an easy fix with a small piece of scrap metal from the bus body. The fun starts when you realize that there is very little you can do that will be unfixable. The worst that can happen is that it will cost you to replace the parts or materials, but all things can be fixed.
What has been your favorite part of the build and why?
THEN: Insulation. We purchased a foam pack from Lowes and sprayed the bus ourselves, and it was one of the simpler tasks that was very rewarding. Masking the windows and front end and other precious areas was hands down the most difficult part, but since spraying the insulation only goes in a couple of areas, it was honestly pretty straight forward. We had heard the same response from a lot of people too- ‘we were scared to insulate not knowing what to expect and it turned out to be the easiest thing we did during our build’.
NOW: Design. We have had to do quite a bit more design work and vision board’ing, meaning that we are constantly considering placement and finishes and fixtures even at the beginning stages of framing and building in order to keep the project on track. Design is the fun part: envisioning our future home while sitting in the empty shell of a bus is encouraging, but also fundamental in keeping small projects on track.
Building a school bus isn’t for the faint of heart. It is physical, time-consuming, and mentally draining work. We speak with people regularly who comment on how married they feel to their bus and it’s so true. But, we justify that in terms of building a home. We have taken our savings to invest in something that is going to provide for us in bountiful ways down the road, so taking the time to do the research and spend the extra money on quality appliances is no different than spending money on a brand new house. One of the best pieces of advice we can pass along is the importance of allowing it all to happen while doing your best to remain present for it all— make mistakes, sit in the bus and stare at your current project, waste an entire day doing the project with the wrong materials. But remember to balance that with your victories— celebrate when the bus windows are sealed, applaud yourself when you tackle a project learned from YouTube, and toast the day you finally tackle those projects you’ve been intimidated by for so long. And lastly, challenge yourself because chances are, if you’re crazy enough to take on a school bus conversion, you’re smart enough and just stubborn enough to accomplish some pretty mesmerizing things.