In addition to shutting down gyms, movie theaters and sporting events, the pandemic has also hampered the work of some volunteer and charitable activities. That includes the DreamBuilders project that Temple Isaiah participates in, which canceled its plans to organize a volunteer trip to build and repair homes in Panama City, Fla. Not willing to be deterred by the outbreak, DreamBuilders and Temple Isaiah adjusted their focus to constructing desks for students in need of a place to study while learning from home.
According to Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler, DreamBuilders, an interfaith coalition of several houses of worship, has spent years organizing volunteer missions to build or rebuild structures in areas hit by natural disasters or intense poverty. When COVID-19 placed those plans on hold, the organization began looking for other ways to serve those in need.
During a late-June DreamBuilders meeting, two members of DreamBuilders’ leadership committee, Lisa Hansen-Viglotti and Pam Brazis, raised the issue of how students were being required to engage in virtual learning at their homes without the use of desks to study at.
Amy Levitt, a resident of Crownsville and member of both Temple Isaiah and DreamBuilders, explained how “students need a space where they can do their best work. Some are sitting at the kitchen table with siblings, trying to concentrate on their lessons. Some students are working from their beds. Some don’t even have room for a permanent desk.”
Due to the situation facing remote learning students, Hansen-Viglotti and Brazis, both of whom were teachers, inquired as to whether DreamBuilders could switch its focus to building the desks that school children were so in need of.
Jeff Kassman, a Clarkesville resident and Temple Isaiah member who holds an unofficial leadership role at DreamBuilders, took it upon himself to design the initial prototype. He knew that it would need to be relatively small, yet large enough to fit something akin to a Chromebook and perhaps a notepad next to it. He ended up “with something in the 36-inch to 18-inch range,” he said. As it would also need to be light enough to be portable for a child, he aimed that it not exceed a maximum weight of 25 pounds.
After a week or so of sketching concepts, Kassman got the materials he needed from a lumberyard and put together a prototype, he said, with poplar wood used for the frame and cabinet grade birch plywood for the work top. The total cost for raw materials for a single desk came to around $50.
The finished, one-size-fits-all product is capable of being folded and stuffed under a bed or behind a couch, Kassman said, making it very practical for homes or apartments where space is at a premium.
DreamBuilders has so far organized two separate building sessions, Kassman said, with one in August and the other in October. The first build saw the construction of 118 desks, while the second saw 120. The builds were done largely outdoors, with different assembly stations spaced apart from each other, and organizers making sure that each individual station was manned by members of the same household.
A third build had been planned for Nov. 21, Kassman said, but was postponed when coronavirus numbers began spiking in Maryland.
However beneficial the desks may be to the local community, the implications have significantly outgrown their origins. “The project itself has taken on a life of its own, and gone beyond DreamBuilders,” said Axler. “It’s something that we’ve shared with communities across the country that have taken the specific pattern and design build, and have applied it in their own communities. So it’s really been growing actually over the last month.”
In fact, the DreamBuilders desk project was even featured during an August episode of the ABC program “GMA3: What You Need to Know,” during which the interviewer spoke with DreamBuilders founder John McBeth.
“These are very challenging times, and there’s an awful lot of stress associated with these times,” McBeth said. “And yet there’s so many good people in our country, and they are looking for ways that they can help, and ways that they can give back.”
“It felt wonderful to give back during this difficult time,” said Levitt on participating in the desk-building project. Working on joinery alongside her husband, Ben, Levitt said she had fun working to assemble the side frames for more than 100 desks.
“These desks are already a game changer,” Levitt said. “Each desk is just an immediate upgrade in the student’s home learning environment.”