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Havre de Grace Elementary students get ‘a little piece of normal’ with desks for learning at home

Boat builders from left, Andy Goldberg, Tom Luhr and Al Caffo use their skills to build wooden desks, part of a national effort, Desks for Kids, at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. The first delivery of 16 desks was made to Havre de Grace Elementary School students on Jan. 20.
Boat builders from left, Andy Goldberg, Tom Luhr and Al Caffo use their skills to build wooden desks, part of a national effort, Desks for Kids, at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. The first delivery of 16 desks was made to Havre de Grace Elementary School students on Jan. 20. (Courtesy photos)

Sixteen hand-made wooden desks have been donated to Havre de Grace Elementary School students in need — with more on the way — giving those children the opportunity to have a sense of familiarity with the school environment as they learn online at home.

“The kids were so excited to see their desks,” said Kristin Schaub, the school’s Title I teacher specialist. “It just gave them that feeling of, ‘I really am part of school again.’”

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Havre de Grace resident Al Caffo and his son David, who is an adjunct faculty member and director of experiential learning at Wilmington University in Delaware, worked with other volunteers at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum to build the desks in the museum’s boat shop.

Their effort is based on similar projects happening across the country as individuals and groups work to build desks for children in need, to give them a suitable workspace as they take classes at home. The projects are known by names such as “Desks for Kids” or “Desks by Dads,” and they have been featured on national news programs such as ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

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“It’s been popping up all over the country, actually,” said David Caffo, who learned about the initiative in September while he and his wife were watching a GMA feature on it.

The couple saw another news story on the program in November and brought it up as a potential project for the Caffo family while having a socially distanced gathering with David’s parents around a fire pit between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Al Caffo is a retired chemistry instructor with West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and his wife, Betty, is a retired provost for Wilmington University. The couple moved to Havre de Grace about 12 years ago after they retired.

“We’re avid sailors, and that’s what brought us to Havre de Grace in the first place,” said Al, who noted he and his wife have a boat, “Summer Semester,” docked in Tidewater Marina.

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Al also volunteers at the Maritime Museum, where he and his cohorts have built from scratch or refurbished six boats that are on display in the museum. Volunteers are currently working to restore outboard motors, the oldest dating to 1925.

David Caffo and his wife “were suggesting what a good idea this would be, for us at the boat shop,” Al said of the Desks for Kids project.

The group raised $1,500 through GoFundMe — within 48 hours — and plan to build 33 desks total. The desks are made of plywood and 2x4 lumber. The 16 desks, along with small plastic chairs that had been donated and purchased, were delivered to Havre de Grace Elementary on Jan. 20.

“I’m impressed with the craftsmanship that has gone into these [desks],” said David, who performed tasks such as rubbing down the wood and applying finish.

Other volunteers included David Anstrand, Andy Goldberg and Tom Luhr, who worked with Al Caffo on building the desks, David and Betty Caffo who handled tasks such as finishing and Jeff Andrews, manager of the Tidewater Marina, who transported lumber and brought the finished desks to the school.

The remaining desks and chairs are slated to be delivered to Havre de Grace Elementary and Roye-Williams Elementary School this week, although the exact day depends on the weather, Betty said.

“[We] wanted to give these kids some [sense] that there’s people out there, other than their teachers and families, rooting for them to do well in school,” Al Caffo said.

Havre de Grace Elementary is a Title I school, meaning a large number of its 579 students come from low-income families, and the school qualifies for federal assistance that administrators and staff can use to provide additional support to students.

As the Title I teacher specialist, Schaub works with teachers to “build capacity” to support their students, plus she connects with students’ families and reaches out to members of the community to get them engaged with the school.

“We’re looking to make sure that we’re getting the best access for all of our students to be able to achieve at high levels,” she said.

The school has a mission of, “we believe in ourselves, to receive support from our community to achieve our goals and dreams,” according to Schaub.

Schaub said the school administration had been contacted by the Caffos regarding their interest in building desks for students. She worked with the teachers, who can see what each student’s home learning environment is like through the virtual connection. Teachers then reached out to families as they determined which children would benefit the most from a new desk.

“We wanted to make sure that those who needed [the desks] the most were able to get [them],” Schaub said.

She noted the positive reactions of children and parents, many of whom have said the desks give “a little bit of normal back to the kids.”

Students get a sense of structure, that they are not just sitting on their beds, but that “I’m sitting in a chair at a desk, I’m focused and ready to do my schoolwork,” Schaub said.

“This was just a real tangible way for our students to be able to see what it means to receive support from our community,” she said. “I think it helps to give them a sense of purpose, that my community is counting on me. They gave me this desk, and so I’m ready to work hard.”

The first batch of desks and chairs were provided to students in kindergarten and first grade, and the next group will go to older students; Havre de Grace Elementary serves children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

Al Caffo recalled seeing photos of children at their desks and receiving positive comments from their families.

“It was very rewarding,” he said. “It felt like were were definitely doing a good thing for the community and the students.”

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