“Space to Learn” Desks Build Community

As a “newbie” woodworker, I get excited about the little things, like when a part actually fits into a dado or when my cutting board pattern lines up! I am sure this sounds silly to many of you, but these feelings of accomplishment are what fuel my passion for this craft.

Colleen Carey shows a desk that she built
Colleen Carey, Woodworker’s Journal’s video production assistant, delivers one of 20 desks she made for “Space to Learn.”

In mid-November 2020, a local television station publicized that the Minnesota Tool Library was organizing a “Space to Learn” project. The purpose of “Space to Learn” was to build desks for students in the St. Paul public school system who are studying from home but don’t have a “space” of their own to do homework. I thought getting involved would be a great way to practice my skills.

Checking out tools from the Minnesota tool library
Client members checking out a variety of more than 5,000 loaner tools at the Minnesota Tool Library, prior to the beginning of the 2020 pandemic.

I learned that the Minnesota Tool Library is a member-based, volunteer-driven nonprofit that empowers people to “Fix Their Stuff and Fix the World.” They have over 5,000 tools to borrow, a community woodshop/maker space and they provide DIY classes and workshops. Its mission is to cultivate a more resilient and equitable community, reduce waste and empower residents with access to tools, training and workspaces.

The demand for desks was high, I was told. After the news story aired, the Minnesota Tool Library said they received between 1,500 and 2,000 requests for desks. Organizers had to limit the distribution to one desk per household, due to time and resources, except for families with many distance learners.

Simple desk building template
A templated plan for the “Space to Learn” desk ensured that all desks would be constructed uniformly and meet program guidelines.

The organization created a template for the “Space to Learn” desk and originally thought they could build the majority of the desks in socially distanced volunteer groups at their facility. But because of the tightened restrictions in the state, they had to readjust to at-home builds and smaller in-person efforts instead.

Stab in the Dark

Two volunteer leaders for Saint Paul Minnesota desk building project
With safety glasses and masks in place, St. Paul Desk Build volunteer team leaders Katheryn and Chris busily assemble desks.

I decided to build the desks in my garage shop, along with about 80 other volunteers/households. They sent the template and plan to me, and off to the store I went for materials. I committed to building four desks in about three weeks, which was a total stab in the dark as I had never built a desk before and had no idea how long it would take.

Needless to say, it took me a lot longer than three weeks, but I finished them! I delivered the desks to Minnesota Tool Library so they could do their quality check and distribute them to the community. What happened next came as a complete surprise: I pulled into the facility, and a feeling washed over me that I wasn’t expecting. To see the hundreds of desks other woodworkers and community members had made for these kids was overwhelming. It gave me goosebumps!

Parts and equipment for constructing donated desks
Some 500 desks were built at the Minnesota Tool Library and other smaller build venues and home shops to help Twin Cities area school children distance learn from home.

This was WAY bigger than me learning some new skills. Our community had come together and provided a “space” for these children to call their own. A space they could be proud of and continue to learn in these very difficult times. But I learned there was still a lot of work to do. It was mid-December, and while 300 desks had been built, the goal was to have 500 made by the beginning of January.

I immediately signed up to help assemble more desks for a four-hour shift on a Saturday. I also took building materials home to help fulfill the need. All in all, I made about 20 desks. During the process, I improved my ability to make angle cuts. I also learned that patience during big projects really pays off.

When people come together it matters, and we woodworkers can make a difference. More than 600 families were able to give their children a space to learn, thanks to woodworkers getting involved! I am proud of the woodworking community in St. Paul, and I can’t wait to see what we can build together in the future.

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