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With plywood, glue and a lot of love, an Arvada couple is giving Colorado kids a place to study — one desk at a time

What began as a one-man hobby to help kids studying at home during the pandemic has turned into a volunteer operation to build 150 desks and counting.

Arvada woodworker Eric Janota builds a school desk in his home garage as part of Desks for Kids, a volunteer program that builds desks for low-income children to use for home-based remote learning during Covid-19-related school closures. He, his wife, Kim Gonsalves, and several other area woodworkers are building dozens of the desks for area schools, inspired by a Maryland program called Desks by Dads that is gaining national attention. Janota was photographed on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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After Eric Janota built 18 desks by hand in his Arvada garage-turned-woodshop earlier this month, he wondered if anyone would want them.

Stevens Elementary School in Wheat Ridge immediately claimed a need for even more desks than his supply, and a flurry of requests followed. Early College of Arvada needed nine desks and Allendale Elementary School responded that it could use 96 desks for families. 

His response: “Oh, holy crap.”

Janota, a self-taught carpenter and a self-described hobbyist, set to work and hasn’t stopped, recruiting five other woodworkers across Arvada and Denver to assemble desks to donate to Colorado students who are learning from home this fall and need a designated spot to study. 

The project, Desks for Kids, has grown into something much larger than Janota ever anticipated as the demands for desks have continued mounting. What started as a simple volunteer initiative is scaling up into a community effort led by Janota and his wife, Kim Gonsalves, both of whom recognize the struggles remote learning has introduced for many families.

A desk may not solve every last school-related challenge, but it at least gives kids the right kind of setting to tackle their classes from home.

“It’s one less hurdle to have to go over,” said Janota, 54.

Arvada woodworker Eric Janota builds a school desk in his home garage as part of Desks For Kids, a volunteer program that builds desks for low-income children to use for home-based remote learning during Covid-19-related school closures. Janota was photographed on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The need identified so far totals at least 150 desks — a need that could easily balloon by a few hundred more desks, though the couple doesn’t have a firm grasp of just how many families from local schools could use one of their wooden workspaces.

They don’t know exactly how they’ll do it, but Gonsalves said they’ll “build as many desks as possible and fulfill the needs of as many kids as possible who otherwise would not have a learning space in their home.”

To Janota, that means assembling desks until the woodworkers he’s corralled run themselves out of business.

Janota, a cartographer for National Geographic by day, was largely inspired by a parallel initiative in Maryland called Desks by Dads, which his brother contributes to by teaching others how to build desks. Janota contacted that group’s organizers and they walked him through their own process of connecting with schools and identifying children in need, as well as what their construction of desks has entailed.

Janota started calling area schools asking if any of their students need a desk for distance learning. Janota and Gonsalves delivered several of their handmade desks, which look a bit like a box balanced on a sawhorse, themselves, but as the scope of their work expands, they’ve turned to schools to assist with delivering. 

They’re also relying on schools to triage the need and decide which students should be placed at the top of the distribution list. Janota and Gonsalves hope their handiwork helps students from low-income backgrounds and those with special needs first, similar to how their peers in Maryland have approached donations.

For some families, a new desk is among the only furniture in their home

As the requests for desks have started to pour in, so too has the support. Janota has been able to create his own woodworking crew, thanks in part to social media. While Gonsalves found their first outside volunteer builder through Nextdoor, Janota posted on Facebook — for the first time ever — in a group of Colorado woodworkers. A coworker and his wife have also given Janota a hand with assembly.

Nick McCombie responded to Janota’s Facebook post with the tools and the background to immediately begin building. In addition to working as a survey manager for Saunders Construction, he owns a part-time business, VHM Woodworking. He approached his wife, Kristina, a first grade teacher at Stevens Elementary School, about the idea of assembling desks for students from her school. 

Nick, 33, has since taken charge of filling the need at Stevens Elementary. Close to 70 families from the Title I school — a federal designation for schools with a high percentage of students living in poverty — have said they could use a desk, Kristina said. Other Title I schools across Jeffco Public Schools are also developing lists of families seeking desks.

Nick raised enough money among friends to build 104 desks in his garage, where 52 sheets of stacked plywood are ready to be transformed.

“I want kids to be able to have some semblance of normalcy,” he said, “and if that is giving them a desk, then I’m all for that.”

Wood pieces for home-made elementary-school desks are pictured in the garage of Arvada woodworker Eric Janota on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. He is building desks as part of Desks for Kids, a volunteer program that builds desks for low-income children to use for home-based remote learning during Covid-19-related school closures. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On Tuesday, Nick and Kristina, 34, delivered a desk to the home of one of her students. She saw little other furniture in the house. Without a couch or a kitchen table, the student often sits on the floor to connect with his class over Zoom, Kristina said.

“I think that a lot of our families’ homes are set up for living and not for school,” she said, “and so by giving them a desk it gives them a place to bring school home.”

The teacher also noted that a defined learning space at home gives students a greater sense of control over their learning environment at a time when their lives feel out of control.

“It’s very reminiscent of having their own space at school,” she said.

Along with generating donations from friends, Nick has contributed about $250 toward materials including screws, nails and glue. And while Janota and Gonsalves, 53, were originally funding the desks with their own money — they’ve spent at least $600 on wood, boxes of screws, polyurethane, wood glue and folding chairs — they have set up a Venmo account to collect donations to buy more wood and other supplies.

Each desk costs about $22 to make — an amount Gonsalves equates to four Starbucks drinks. Janota has also started producing chairs to go with some of the smaller desks he makes.

These three elementary school desks were built by Arvada woodworker Eric Janota in his home garage as part of Desks for Kids, a volunteer program involving him, his wife, Kim Gonsalves, and several other area woodworkers. The desks were photographed on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Besides the labor and money that Janota, Gonsalves and the McCombies have invested into Desks for Kids, another huge help has landed in the form of bulk donations of wood from Hiker Trailer, a Denver-based trailer manufacturer. The company offered 1,500 pounds of wood, enough for about 30 desks, and continues to have that stock available for the project every two weeks.

Flooded by both supply and demand, Janota has had to learn how to pick up the pace in his workshop, where he spends about 20 hours each weekend and a couple hours during a few weekdays. He’s become his own assembly line, transitioning from building one desk at a time over about two hours to cutting parts for 10 desks at a time. That has whittled production time down to about an hour per desk.

He’s turned his project into a science. Templates carved out for each piece and a garage floor covered in sawdust are signs of his long hours in construction mode. The hobbyist works methodically on each desk in a rhythm of cutting wood, rounding off all the edges, attaching pieces with glue and a nail gun, and assembling the base with pocketscrews and glue. Boards of plywood lay strewn across his work station, while a cluster of finished desks stands nearby, ready to be delivered to students.

He isn’t necessarily chasing perfect craftsmanship. Instead, the goal is durable furniture that won’t be an eyesore in a family’s home — form with a hint of fashion.

Arvada woodworker Eric Janota sits at an elementary school desk he made in his home garage as part of Desks for Kids, a volunteer program that assembles desks for low-income children to use for home-based remote learning during Covid-19-related school closures. Janota was photographed on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s really intended to be functional and something that people wouldn’t be ashamed to have in their house,” Janota said.

As the desk-building operation grows, Gonsalves, who teaches adults learning English at Red Rocks Community College, coordinates the behind-the-scenes logistics. She handles administrative tasks including monitoring social media, managing donations and communicating with schools and other builders.

She thinks of their own son, 16, and the hurdles he would face if they lacked the resources to support his academics from home. By gifting desks to students who otherwise couldn’t afford them, Gonsalves hopes they get the feeling that they matter, and that each workstation gives its recipient a stepping stone to a bright future.

“Learning,” she said, “is a pathway to success in life.”

If you would like to help, write to Desks for Kids at desks4kids@gmail.com or visit the project’s Facebook page.

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