After building himself a desk for distance learning, Northern Virginia teen Colby Samide spent the last week of summer vacation building 40 free desks for underprivileged kids.
"It’s sad knowing there are kids that can’t afford them," Colby, a 17-year-old from Purcellville, tells PEOPLE.
When the pandemic shut down schools last spring, many parents felt blindsided and unprepared for distance learning, says Katharine Hill, a learning specialist and parent educator based in Brooklyn.
“They didn’t feel very successful,” says Hill, 42. “Stores weren’t open. People hesitated to buy something for a situation we all hoped would be very temporary.”
But as parents attempt a better online learning experience this fall by setting up home classrooms, stores have been selling out of desks.
“It’s a concrete thing parents can do to feel like they’re helping their kids get ready for school,” Hill says.
When it’s not a pandemic, many younger kids do their homework at the kitchen table — which normally, Hill recommends. That’s fine for working on a reading comprehension worksheet or multiplication tables, but for live instruction, it can be too distracting.
Colby experienced the struggle first hand last spring, when he tried working at his family’s dining room table. It was just too loud, he says. He bought a desk from Target and put it in his bedroom. Then he realized the desk was too small and high and he couldn’t spread out. Plus, he had problems focusing on schoolwork because his Xbox was right beside him.
About a month ago, Colby — who loves woodworking and hopes to be an architect or an engineer someday — built himself a custom desk out of a freshly cut red oak tree and set it up in the guest bedroom.
“I love that thing — it’s awesome,” says Colby, a rising junior at Woodgrove High School. “My desk is a great place for me to sit down, not procrastinate and get things done. I know it’s hard to do that when you’re sitting on the floor or the kitchen table.”
The week before school started, he decided to take his hobby to the next level by building desks for underprivileged kids. He created the Desks for Distance Facebook page on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
Within two days, he raised $2,000 and was flooded with requests, catching the attention of local newspaper Loudoun Times-Mirror. Hundreds of parents who aren't in financial need wanted desks for their kids. He had to ask people to please stop donating money, because he had more than enough.
“It absolutely blew up," Colby says. "People kept sharing it."
Over Labor Day weekend, he completed 40 desks before starting school on Tuesday. Colby now wants to finish 60 more to reach his goal of 100 desks. Delivering the simple, solid, sturdy desks is his favorite part.
“That’s the golden moment,” Colby says.
The first desk was delivered on Friday to Kate Kurtzke, a fourth-grade teacher at Creighton’s Corner Elementary School in Ashburn.
Setting up her own distance-learning space, Kurtzke decided to upgrade her desk. She searched Amazon and Target, but many desks were sold out.
“It was slim pickings out there,” says Kurtzke, 55. “All of a sudden it got to the middle of August and a lot of parents were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need a desk for my kid to work at.’”
The week before school started, Kurtzke did virtual meet-and-greets with her students and saw children sitting on their beds, the floor or at expensive-looking desk chairs. She casually asked parents if everyone had a desk for their child.
“That’s such an important part of school,” Kurtzke says. “How your desk is set up is a really important part of how you’re going to be able to work.”
One parent said they simply didn’t have the money to buy a desk.
“My heart sank,” Kurtzke says.
She searched Facebook garage sales to buy her student a desk, but couldn’t find one.
“There’s really nothing out there,” Kurtzke says.
She messaged Colby, and within 24 hours he built and delivered the desk.
“I made Colby sign it. This is your gift, it’s a work of art — and great artists always sign their work. So he signed the bottom of it,” Kurtzke says. “He’s such a generous and kind kid.”
On Monday, Shannon Van Es and her son Xavier picked up his new desk from school. The 31-year-old mother of two boys has disabilities caused by severe rheumatoid arthritis. She’s also raising her sister’s 4-year-old and 15-month-old children. Her disability checks cover the family’s bills but don't go further. A new desk was “absolutely not” in the budget, she says.
“We appreciate it so much,” Van Es tells PEOPLE.
Xavier, 9, was going to start fourth grade working on his bed or in the living room. The night before virtual learning started, they set up his desk in the corner of his room, plugged in his laptop and organized his school supplies. He loves it.
“It’s a really well-made desk — you would think it was professional,” says Shannon. “We can keep it forever. It’s not painted, so I told him he can make it his own. He can take it to college — and it will have memories of whatever he painted at this age.”
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