After 670-hour, $2,000 project at Manresa, Jakob Christiansen moves on to represent Scouts on global stage

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — The scenic grounds of Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills were made a little more beautiful recently because of a volunteer project overseen by a local Eagle Scout.

Jakob Christiansen, 16, and his team of workers built a new bridge that “hugely enhances Manresa's grounds,” said Manresa associate director Steve Raymond, offering “a shorter and simpler path to the St. Ignatius Chapel from the Retreat House.” 

Raymond called Christiansen's project a “blessing” to “all who come to Manresa's holy grounds.”

Christiansen, who attends St. Patrick Parish in White Lake and belongs to Troop 326, had been searching for an Eagle Scout project for months before learning of the need for a new bridge at the Bloomfield Hills Jesuit retreat center. 

“I called around to a bunch of different charities that either my church or other Eagle Scouts had helped with,” Jakob told Detroit Catholic. “Nobody responded. I even got wait-listed at one, which I found interesting because I wanted to give them time and money.”

One day, Jakob was returning from orchestra practice — he plays the bass in the Oakland Homeschool Music group — when he noticed the Manresa property. 

“We drive by this area on my way back pretty much every week,” Jakob said. “My mom suggested I call Manresa. They were like, ‘Sure, come on out. Are you free tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I am now.’”

Just before Thanksgiving, Jakob visited the property for a walkthrough with Manresa's groundskeepers, whom he later came to know on a first-name basis. 

“There was a bridge over by the millhouse chapel that had washed away due to the river rising,” Christiansen said. “They were talking about building a new one and asked if I was up for building a bridge.”

Though Christiansen had never undertaken such a large project, he had been interested in woodworking during his Cub Scout years.

“We did a lot of building projects and arts and crafts type stuff,” he said. “We built toolboxes, bird houses, model rockets, stuff like that.”

In his teen years, he actually started his own business, the Detroit Pen Company, selling wooden pens he would shape on a lathe. He admits he is basically self-taught. “I watch a lot of YouTube videos,” he said. 

Apparently, his talent for the craft runs in his family.

Jakob is an amateur woodworker, having used inherited tools to build guitars, pens and other objects. While bridges are another animal, he was excited to tackle the Manresa project. (Courtesy of Mike Christiansen)
Jakob Christiansen poses outside the chapel on the grounds of Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills. (Kelly Luttinen | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“My great-grandfather was a shop teacher and was big in woodworking,” said Jakob, who showcases his creations on his Instagram page, Detroit Woodworker. “He died when I was 6. Upon his passing, my dad and I inherited a lot of his equipment. Over the past couple of years I have built a bunch of stuff. I’ve even built a bass guitar.” 

With demands on his time piling up, from music to scouting to competing on the homeschool debate team, Jakob stopped selling pens, but continued to develop his talent. 

Jakob admits bridge building is more than a one-man job, but the project was perfect for an Eagle Scout. 

“The job of an Eagle Scout isn’t to do the entire project myself,” he said. “It is to provide leadership to others and essentially manage the project. I had to design the bridge, procure all the materials, raise all the money, and put all the pieces into motion.”

Jakob enlisted the help of 67 volunteers, a group he called a “solid mix” of people from his troop, neighbors, friends and people from his parish. “I pretty much reached out to anyone I could,” he said.

Jakob budgeted $2,000 for the material cost of the project. He raised $1,300 through a can drive — yes, that's 13,000 cans — and the rest through a GoFundMe page, advertised via flyers distributed within a four-mile radius of his West Bloomfield home. 

The project came in just under budget, so he donated the remaining $100 to Manresa. 

All told, the project took 670 hours of labor from everyone involved. Preliminary work began in January, but the bulk of the project was started in April, when Jakob's team laid concrete footings for the new bridge.

“We actually had to raise up the footings to prevent what happened before,” Jakob explained. “The bridge actually sits up pretty high. The water would have to come up three-and-a-half feet to touch the bottom of the bridge. We have it strapped through a backboard, straight into the concrete, so that bridge is not going to go anywhere.”

The majority of the building work was completed on a weekend in early May. 

“I didn’t even finish the scheduling,” Jakob said. “The best part was seeing how goal-oriented everyone was. The fact they were all there with one goal in mind, to build this bridge, it was like a sense of accomplishment for all of us, that we were able to do this.”

Jakob's parents, Mike and Christine Christiansen, say they're proud of their son's accomplishments and are excited to see where his future will take him. (Kelly Luttinen | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Christiansen appreciates the help and support he received from Manresa. “They were amazing to work with,” he said. “The groundskeepers were my main interface. They gave me everything I needed to succeed, but didn’t micro-manage the process.”

Christiansen was allowed to store all his materials in a Manresa storage barn, and use whatever equipment he needed, including generators, plywood, tools and tractors. A recent fire in one of the Manresa storage barns caused him no little worry at the time, but his materials — which were stored in another barn — weren't harmed.

Scouting as a life model

Jakob's parents, Mike and Christine, are proud of their son's accomplishments. Jakob has been involved in Scouting since he was 6, Christine Christiansen said.

“We were along for the journey, and it was really fun watching him grow and develop along the way,” Christine said.

They remember when their son received his Ad Altare Dei award, the fruit of a yearlong program to enhance Scouts' understanding of their Catholic faith.

“Having the opportunity to attend Boy Scouts through our church helped him connect his faith with something,” Mike Christiansen said. “That’s been a gift, as is being able to give something back through our Catholic faith and give Manresa this bridge, which will hopefully last quite a while and serve the community.”  

Christine Christiansen said her son loves the concept of being a “servant leader,” a term that describes him well, she said. 

“That’s really who he is. He looks for ways to serve, to help. He is very intuitive about when a group needs a leader, or when a group needs their leader to be followed,” Christine said.

In addition to his extracurricular activities, Jakob has been active at St. Patrick Parish, helping prepare future confirmandi through the religious education program and helping his mother coordinate the parish's Vacation Bible School.

Jakob and his parents, Mike and Christine, spend time in prayer in the chapel on the grounds of Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills. (Kelly Luttinen | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Recently, Christiansen was chosen as a global ambassadors to the 24th World Scout Jamboree taking place in West Virginia. As one of four Scouts from the United States chosen for the honor, Jakob will update a daily blog about his experiences at the Jamboree, an international event involving 45,000 scouts from 160 countries, which runs July 21 to Aug. 2.

“The purpose is to have Scouts from all different cultures, countries and backgrounds come together to have fun and learn more about one another,” Jakob said. “The goal is to learn more about how other countries view Scouting, to enrich your Scouting experience, and maybe bring something home your troop can use.”

It won't be the first time Jakob has been able to experience Scouting from an international perspective; his family lived in China for two years when he was a Cub Scout, too.

“We had people from all over the world in my den — New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Germany, all through Europe, all through Asia, Tiawan, Malaysia, Indonesia. That inspired me,” Jakob said. “I want to meet more people from around the world and see how they do Scouting.”

When his troop leader called in February to tell him he was selected as one of the four ambassadors, he said it took him a minute to process the news. 

“It is a major honor,” Jakob said. “Whenever I step back and think about it, it is something I am pretty proud of.”

So, what's next for this young man? 

Well, for one thing, he hopes to attend either Michigan State University or the University of Minnesota to major in construction management. 

“I realized building the bridge was actually construction management on a small scale,” Jakob said. “I used it to figure out if I wanted to do it as a career. It was awesome to experiment in the realm of Boy Scouting for something I want to do with the rest of my life.”