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Maryland nonprofit builds portable desks for Howard County students to use during online learning

When schools were forced to migrate classes online in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, school systems across the country were tasked with providing devices and internet services to some of its students.

An overlooked necessity for virtual learning, however, has been the space in which students do their school work. Some students don’t have dedicated work spaces in their homes, and others may not have a big enough living space to learn virtually without distractions.

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This is why a Maryland nonprofit, DreamBuilders, is temporarily shifting gears away from renovating homes on mission trips to building desks for Howard County students to use during remote learning. A group of local volunteers with the interfaith organization gathered at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Highland on Saturday for the first of two work days to build 120 desks for Howard students.

“We know that not all of our students have a dedicated workspace at home,” said Pam Brazis, a reading interventionist at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia. “Some of them are working from on the couch or kitchen table or wherever they can find a space. We really feel it is important for students to find a dedicated work area for their device and their pencils and all of their materials for a workspace.”

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The volunteers, including adults and teenagers, expect to finish the 120 desks this Saturday and will then work to find students in Howard County who are in need of work spaces at home.

Jeff Kassman, a member of the organization’s leadership team, said DreamBuilders, which was founded in 2002, had its June trip to Panama City, Florida, canceled due to the pandemic. The mission trip to a place in need — from New Orleans to Puerto Rico — has become a summer tradition for DreamBuilders, whose volunteers have worked on more than 70 homes across the world.

“It was unrealistic to take the kids [on the mission trip] with the risk of the coronavirus,” Kassman said. “We got the leadership group together to find out where we could put our energy.”

During that meeting, DreamBuilders’ leadership team members Brazis and Lisa Viglotti, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Mt. Hebron High School, suggested building desks for students.

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“They said there’s this need for kids who are at home, and some of us take for granted that they have a place to work,” Kassman said.

Kassman, who is also the president of KasCon Inc., a general contracting firm in Columbia, then created a prototype for a portable and storable desk that can be folded down to about 4.5 inches flat.

“You can put it under a bed or behind a couch,” he said.

“This has been a really hard few months with the pandemic and staying at home,” Brazis said. “The core of our mission is to help folks in need, and we were really delighted to find a way to do that.”

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