Oakmont group builds and donates desks for Sonoma County children
Seniors4Students (S4S) is a Sonoma County volunteer effort organized to build basic desks for kids who are distance learning but may not have a desk or a quiet place to work at home. The effort gives “sheltering” seniors (and others) a way to support students during a pandemic that has been challenging for all age groups. Inspiration for the project came from similar efforts already started around the country.
Last December, Joe Brewer, a retired educator living in Oakmont, was watching David Muir on the evening news. The newscast ended with an inspirational story in a segment called “America Strong.” On this particular night, the story featured a Maryland couple who started a volunteer effort called “Desks by Dads.” The couple realized that many children were struggling with distance learning because they did not have a desk or a quiet place to work at home. The couple, along with other volunteers, were making and donating dozens of desks to children in need. After watching the story, Brewer thought, “I can do that.”
He reached out to “Desks by Dads” through their Facebook page and they happily provided advice, plans, and encouragement. With this inspiration, he convinced his neighbor Ed Biglin to build a few desks with him. Lowe’s Home Improvement in Cotati was inspired to donate materials for the first four desks. With that, they had a beginning.
Brewer’s enthusiasm for the project prompted his wife Chris Nota to join in on the fun, along with Biglin’s wife Mary Rychly. Rychly and Nota became the “finish crew” responsible for sanding and sealing the finished products. They donated their first four built desks and four more refurbished desks to Luther Burbank Elementary School students in November 2020. The school was chosen because Joe taught there 45 years ago.
The principal and staff at Luther Burbank welcomed the group of volunteer woodworkers with enthusiasm. The teachers were well aware that many of their students were struggling to find a place to do virtual learning at home. During Zoom sessions, many had personally witnessed some students constantly moving around the house, trying to find a comfortable and quiet place to participate. Some were juggling laptops on beds and couches or retreating to walkin closets to find a bit of quiet. The school was happy to take on the task of identifying the kids most in need and communicating with their families that they had a desk and chair for their child.
Before the first donation to Luther Burbank School, the group posted on NextDoor that they were in need of gently used chairs to match up with the desks. Unlike other efforts around the country, the local group was committed to donating not only a desk but also a chair. They felt that with a desk and chair together, a child could create a space that was all theirs even within tight living quarters. The NextDoor post was “trending” for quite a while, and as a result nice quality, adjustable office chairs came out of garages all over Oakmont and eventually all over Sonoma County. It seemed that everyone had at least one or two in their garage.
With this first post, the positive power of community through NextDoor was evident. The post caught the eye of two additional Oakmont residents who had skills in furniture building and design. They reached out and asked if they could help, to which the original four enthusiastically agreed. With that, Anatole Burkin, a furniture builder and former editor/publisher of Fine Woodworking Magazine, and Jeff Hickman, a retired professor of stage design and construction, joined the building crew. Other positive things began brewing on Next-Door; chairs, cash donations, and more offers to help eventually came in. Neighbors offered to buy new chairs for the kids if they didn’t have used ones. One donor, Tony Marden of Bennett Valley, eventually bought 61 new chairs to pair with the beautifully crafted desks. He found the group through NextDoor and wanted to give back to his community during a brand-new, semi-retired phase of his life.
After the positive experience at Luther Burbank School and the momentum from the NextDoor post, the six Oakmont neighbors, in search of purpose and Desks for kids – from page 9
something worthwhile to do with their time, found an answer. They gave themselves a name, Seniors4Students, and decided to keep building until they couldn’t. Over time, many other woodworkers and supporters joined the group. As S4S’s capacity increased, so did their goals. The more they interacted with the school staff, the more they learned just how great the need was and how much positive impact a donated desk and chair could have in a child’s life.
To increase production and adopt a COVID-safe strategy, the group decided to produce pre-cut “desk-building kits” in Brewer’s garage in Oakmont. Builders could take them home to construct in their own garages, then return them to Brewer’s garage for finishing and distribution. Many of the builders showed up on donation day to help transport the desks and to witness and absorb the positive energy of the kids receiving them.
The Moon Rotary (Oakmont) heard about the effort through word-of-mouth and offered to fund and build 20 desks and chairs. S4S completed desk-building kits for them and then provided a desk-building tutorial via Zoom. The Rotary then completed the 20 desks and donated them to Dunbar and Kenwood School students. When their project was complete, a number of the builders and finishers stayed on with S4S to keep building. The club even sponsored more chairs for a Santa Rosa School.
The group has come a long way since the first four desks built for Luther Burbank School. Today, they have over 30 volunteers building and helping. The volunteer builders are all fine woodworkers who build each desk with pride and love. Woodworkers include many retired educators at all levels of education, lawyers, physicists, engineers, wine industry executives, a pilot, and an architect, to name just a few. Some battle cancer and some Parkinson’s, some experienced losses during this last year and some lost their homes in 2017; but all have in common that they love woodworking, care deeply about the kids of Sonoma County, and want to give back to their community.
The effort has been supported through a GoFundMe page with an initial goal of 120 desks/chairs and $5,000 in donations. This was later changed to 275 desks/chairs supported by $12,000 in funds. As of the recent El Verano School donation, they have built and donated over 240 desks to Sonoma County students. So far, they have worked with the following schools to identify and support deserving students: Luther Burbank, Helen Lehman, Steele Lane, Brook Hill, Monroe, Hidden Valley, French American, Kenwood, Dunbar, El Verano, and Windsor School District, with more to come.
After a student received her desk at El Verano, she told school staff that she planned to study more now that she had a desk; the staff cheered her on. The El Verano students showed up with handwritten thank-you cards. The teachers were filled with emotion at this gesture, which they had not instructed the students to do. Pictures of the cards will go out to all the builders via email; it is what keeps them building.
At Steele Lane School, a child articulated, as only children can, that they were surprised that a stranger would care enough to build them a desk. Their experience of strangers helping strangers makes a lasting impression that is as important as the desk itself in giving kids a chance to succeed. One principal told the group that the desks not only give the students a fighting chance at success during virtual learning, but just as importantly teach them that they are not alone in their struggles; they are part of a community, and that community cares.
The pandemic shut many retirees out of the things they value in their retirement years: family, friends, travel, and volunteer work. Through this project, the local seniors have found purpose, meaning, and community in a beautiful way.
For more information, contact S4S at [email protected] or visit their GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/f/seniors4students- building-desks-in-sonoma-county.