In the summer of 2020, during what we thought was the height of the pandemic, my wife, Sonya, and I were acutely aware of the issues facing young learners at home as another remote school year was set to begin. Sonya was an associate principal at Capital High School, and I was a volunteer mentor to a group of students participating in the state’s Supercomputing Challenge. That interest would lead us to create the nonprofit Community Desk Project, which provides young students stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic a dedicated study space.
Remote learning had begun the previous spring and presented a challenge for many families. Kids resorted to studying from crowded kitchen tables and TV trays set in front of armchairs or couches, or simply crouched atop their own beds.
Stores in and around Santa Fe were short on furniture supplies, especially student-sized tables and chairs.
One afternoon while researching a woodworking project, YouTube suggested a random video. The channel was Marc Spagnuolo’s popular The Wood Whisperer. Marc had two young children of his own, and he decided to make two small, easy-to-build desks for them. When I watched it, I immediately thought, “Hey, I could make two of those in a weekend, I bet.”
I told Sonya, and we decided we would give them away on the Facebook group “Circle of Giving – Santa Fe,” where we had seen a few requests for desks.
This was the middle of August, and schools were opening up. Working outside my small shed, I completed the two desks as well as two chairs that I designed to accompany them. We listed them on the Facebook group, and the response was overwhelming. We held a simple drawing to randomly select two student recipients. Keep in mind that these are simple pieces of furniture that are sanded and left unfinished so the child can decorate them as she or he sees fit. The photos we received from these first two made our hearts swell.
The reaction from our first two young learners plus the realization of just how many people needed desks gave me an idea. The following weekend, I decided to build six desks and chairs. In addition, four of the desks were made larger, for students up to around 10th grade. Over two 11-hour days, I just managed to get them done. Again, the response among parents needing desks was overwhelming. The final weekend of August was Labor Day weekend, giving me three days. I decided I would make 10 desks and chairs, we’d give those away, and that would be the end of it.
Unknown to us, however, a relative got word to KOAT in Albuquerque about what we were doing. They sent a reporter and cameraman to interview us while I was in the middle of making desks. Between the time they taped the interview and the following day when it aired, we hastily put together a website with an email address and links so parents who wanted to request a desk could do so and other woodworkers could volunteer to help out. After the piece aired, the request grew to around 30 desks. Each desk and chair cost around $45 at the time (lumber prices have since skyrocketed). We launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $1,500 needed to buy the lumber and surpassed that amount within two days. Meanwhile, the number of requests surpassed 150 desks.
More media coverage and word of mouth brought in more woodworking volunteers. Notable among them was Santa Fe Community College professor/furniture guru Mick Simon and his woodshop students. We soon had our hands full organizing volunteers, pick-ups, drop-offs and requests. Army veteran and radio host Chuck Zobac of Calling All Veterans on KTRC jumped on board and put some serious wind in our sails with his logistics prowess.
By November, our queue was up to 350 desks and we had given away 100. Then a miracle occurred. The Somos Unidos Foundation, the community-focused wing of the New Mexico United soccer club, wanted to support our work by helping us “clear the queue.” Following the end of their season, the players raffled off their game-worn jerseys, the very shirts off their backs, to raise money for a local cause — and they picked us.
The team produced and shared a short documentary about our work and hosted a desk-building event for two Albuquerque community centers. Those desks featured an inspirational quote: “Keep studying, learning, and creating! You are New Mexico’s future. Somos Unidos!”
In-person volunteering came to a halt with the rise in COVID-19 cases later that month, but a handful of volunteers continued on in their own shops. By the end of February, we had accomplished our goal. We cleaned out the queue of those needing desks, some 450 total.
We reached as far north as Velarde, as far south as Los Lunas, and we even took a weekend to deliver 10 desks and chairs to the Navajo Reservation outside Gallup, New Mexico.
We were even featured in a segment on ABC World News, which brought another flurry of interest, this time from across the country.
Most of the emails we received were from volunteers who wanted to make desks or start similar efforts in their communities. Using plans available from our website, they set to work. A high school woodshop teacher near Salinas, California, used his school’s shuttered shop to turn out desks. A Boy Scout achieved his Eagle status by making 10 desks and chairs in the San Francisco Bay area. In total, people from Alabama, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Alaska all built more than a few desks for people in their local communities. One of the most beautiful aspects of this project is that so many people took it to heart and were able to jump in and do something for children in their areas. The desks are truly simple to build such that anyone with basic skills and a few simple tools can accomplish the task.
Recently, with students returning to the classroom, the demand has died down. We have used the downtime to improve the shop space we have, recently acquiring a used barn to use as a permanent space. The requests are about one to two per month, but it will pick up any time more people learn about us and tell their friends about us. It has picked up a bit as students were recently sent back to remote learning during the wave of the Omicron variant.
To date, we have given away 475 desks with help from more than 30 volunteers helping us out — and that is just here in New Mexico. Our students truly are our future, and there is no greater reward than seeing them succeed.
David Gunter and Sonya Gunter are the co-founders of the Community Desk Project. To learn more about requesting a desk, volunteering or donating, go to communitydeskproject.org.