After the pandemic pushed St. Paul classrooms to distance learning, some students found themselves without a set place to work. Instead of writing essays at a desk, they had to learn long division in their beds or take tests on a coffee table.
So in early November, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter approached the Minnesota Tool Library about whether the nonprofit could start a desk-building project for local students.
Leaders at the Tool Library, which supplies tools, trainings and workspaces to local residents, said yes.
With a CARES Act Grant of about $11,000 to pay mostly for supplies, the volunteer-run Space to Learn project had hoped to build 500 desks for St. Paul distance learners in kindergarten through sixth grade. The organization has done even better, and the desks keep coming in from home builders.
"I think we're going to end up probably right around 600," Minnesota Tool Library Executive Director Kate Hersey said.
The original plan was to have the majority of desks built in socially distanced group efforts, with volunteers at stations working on different aspects. But after Gov. Tim Walz tightened pandemic restrictions in November, the group readjusted to smaller in-person operations and at-home builds as the project's driving force.
Chris Durfee, a Tool Library volunteer and committee member, said the group was motivated to complete the project by January.
"We could have just said, hey we're going to just build these desks, we're going to build less of them or we're going to stretch it out over the course of the year," Durfee said. "But we all knew that they need the space now."
St. Paul schools have been in distance learning mode since the pandemic began.
Hersey described parents' interest in the desks as "overwhelming." More than 500 households had filled out a request form before the Tool Library closed it, asking for 1,500 to 2,000 desks. Organizers limited the distribution to one desk per house, except for households with many distance learners.
The Tool Library has done plenty of community service projects since its founding in 2015, but none compared to Space to Learn.
According to Hersey, one of the most exciting parts of the project has been the involvement of people outside the Tool Library community — from volunteers who were experienced craftsmen and from novices.
Sam Snyder, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, was in the latter group. She was at home for winter break when her dad saw a news story about the project and said they should contribute. Despite never working on a project like this before, Snyder agreed, and the father-daughter duo ended up building 12 desks.
"It took up our entire garage," Snyder said. "It was pretty cool, and we felt pretty accomplished after that."
The Tool Library has distributed more than 400 desks as of Monday. The final desks will be delivered to students over the coming days, with people who were not on the original list eligible to sign up.
The students who have received their desks have sent the Tool Library thank-you notes and photos of their desks in action. Parents and teachers have also sent notes of appreciation.
"With any project like that, it's so wonderful to see what a difference it makes," Hersey said.
Peter Warren • 612-673-1713