Call it serendipity. Maybe it was fate.
Whatever was at play, a phone call for help turned the Carter Lake Model Railroad Club for kids into a community project for three Westside High School DECA students.
Fourth-generation railroad man Lee Hudson hoped to start a model train club for low-income kids and he wanted to talk to someone who could help him develop the idea.
On a Saturday, he called Bellevue University and ended up talking to Ed Nickell, an admissions counselor at the college, who normally was not in his office on the weekend.
Nickell said he was the wrong person but he took notes about Hudson's idea. And he got to thinking.
Nickell is a mentor and chairman of business partnerships with DECA. The call came as DECA student teams were seeking community projects for the year.
Setting up such a club would be a great project, Nickell thought.
He put Westside students Camden Bilyeu, Tim Graves and Ryan Fetters in touch with Hudson, and the model railroad club was born.
It meets every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at Carter Lake Community Presbyterian Church and is open to any area students age 8 and older who would like to join. After two meetings, there were 10 youth members and several adult volunteer mentors.
Bilyeu said the general goal of the DECA students' project is to improve relationships within the community. But more specifically, the teens hope to increase the club's membership, instill a love of railroads in young people and provide a safe and worthwhile activity that would keep kids off the streets.
The longer-term goals are fundraising and making the club sustainable after the DECA project has ended, Bilyeu said.
To help get the club off the ground, the DECA team has created a Twitter account to spread the word about various club events, Bilyeu said.
The students organized an open house, contacting area schools to let them know about the event, and they advertised it on Twitter.
“We also plan to stay in contact with local schools and businesses about the club to drive up membership,” Bilyeu said.
Hudson got the idea for a youth club after catching two boys spray-painting graffiti. Although those two didn't take up his offer to teach them about model trains, the idea of starting the club didn't die.
He and John Heidenescher, co-founder of the club and an owner of JJ & Cl Train Shop in Council Bluffs, greeted club members and visitors on a recent Saturday. Bilyeu and Nickell were on hand as well, as were several other adults who wanted to help.
The club rents space in the church parish hall, which holds one large model train layout, one smaller setup and a couple of tables full of train cars and miscellaneous train-set parts. Renting the space prevents club members from having to disassemble everything they put together every Saturday.
Hudson hopes the club eventually will be able to find and afford a permanent home.
Club members have put together elaborate layouts set up on wooden boards that can be folded up to take to train shows. All the materials have been donated by the community, said Hudson, who was a conductor for 25 years for Burlington Northern before retiring and turning to model trains. “Union Pacific has helped, too,” he said.
On that Saturday, brothers David, 12, and Jordan Schnider, 11, of Council Bluffs, were painting items for the layout with Dakota Lanteri, 18, who also was tinkering with entrances into a tunnel.
Six-year-old Keaton German was full of questions about how everything works.
“We don't usually have kids that young,” Hudson said, adding they made an exception since he comes with his older brother, Julian, 12, of Pacific Junction.
The larger layout can handle five HO-gauge trains at one time. The smaller setup is for one N-gauge train. Both eventually will have more elaborate landscaping and accessories as the club members continue to work on them.
Some of the kids were eager to start running the trains, but Hudson raised his voice, telling them to make sure the tracks were clear before setting the trains in motion.
Kaylee Diamond, 12, so far is the only girl in the club. That doesn't bother her, she said, shrugging her shoulders. “It's something to do.”
She got interested in model trains by attending shows at the Bluffs' Mid-America Center with her father, Floyd. That Saturday, Kaylee and her dad worked with Eric Heidenescher, John's 13-year-old grandson, on the N-gauge layout.
In the beginning, the only train shows the group will attend are local ones because they don't have the funds to travel, Hudson said.
Bilyeu said his DECA team is trying to come up with ways to raise funds. The team also is contacting model train manufacturers and area businesses, seeking donations of monetary gifts as well as items to use for the club such as track.
Hudson added that donations of wood (for building more tables to use as layout bases) would be welcome, but mostly the club needs money to help pay rent and purchase supplies.
There's only one club rule: No bullying allowed. Two warnings and you're out, Hudson said. “We're all equal here.”
Eric Heidenescher said he has been exposed to model trains since he was 3 or 4, thanks to his grandfather's shop. But he doesn't get tired of it and he likes being part of the club.
“I just have fun with people who love trains like me,” he said.