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Sawdust and Service: Shaker student turns pandemic problem into charitable solution

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Posted at 4:57 PM, Feb 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-08 18:39:39-05

CLEVELAND — Whether it is for work or school, the pandemic has shed light on how important it is to have a desk. However, after seeing how expensive they can be, a Shaker Heights High School student decided to parlay her quest for a new desk into a new project aimed at helping her classmates.

Like many of her peers, Grace Wilkinson, a 17-year-old junior at Shaker HS, has had the unenviable task of continually adjusting to remote learning. Unabashed to admit her love of going to school, her kitchen table, which has become a makeshift desk during her days of remote learning, has been a poor substitute for the camaraderie and energy of a normal classroom, she said.

"It really wasn't working out for me all that well," Wilkinson said. "This has just really taught me that you can be a kid and you can have an idea that can be brought to life instantly."

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Last semester, during the throes of online learning, Wilkinson also learned that for the third year in a row, she would be assigned to the school's JV field hockey team; she had hoped to make the varsity roster. Instead of playing junior varsity again, she said she wanted to find another avenue to devote her time.

Wilkinson said she called her principal, Eric Juli, and asked if it would be possible to let her bring a school desk home to help her find her zen during remote instruction. Although the principal declined her request, he offered up a suggestion: build your own.

He also recommended a place where she could do it.

"Mr. Juli is a great, great leader. He is all about hands-on learning which, in a pandemic, you wouldn't think that it would be something you would come across or something new that you learn," Wilkinson said. "I think, in a way, he knew that kids were going to need that learning ability. This is all that we're doing here."

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Her concept was simple: build desks not just for herself but her classmates, too. After pitching the idea to the Shaker Schools Foundation, which provided a grant for Wilkinson's endeavor, she then set out to learn basic carpentry from Peter Debelak, the co-owner and co-founder of Soulcraft, a community access workshop that has provided hands-on education on craftsmanship and carpentry.

"With everybody going remote, a lot of students just don't have desks at home. They generated the idea themselves for students that don't have them," Debelak said. "They really drove this process from start to finish. We were just there to help them get from a to b to c. With this pandemic, to hear stories like this of people thinking creatively, problem-solving around this thing that has happened around us all is just a tremendous story."

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Wilkinson and some of her classmates have already started construction on 50 hand-built desks for 50 families in Shaker Heights. Although the assembly process got off to a sluggish start -- they learned to always measure twice and cut once -- the students have been humming along, building three desks a night. The group meets at least twice a week for a couple of hours of building.

"I've been astounded by their resiliency," Debelak said. "In a project like this where you design the prototype and you're not building off of a blueprint, you're going to, in fact, make mistakes. It's just built into the process."

So far, the group has built more than a dozen desks and Wilkinson hopes to make the first delivery of 25 in the coming weeks. The entire experience has been educational and fulfilling, she said.

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"All you have to do is just be passionate about it and keep on asking people... Everyone just wants to support you in any way they can especially if it's helping people, which is what we are doing," Wilkinson said. "It's just nice to know that there is a little piece that is just for you and no one else. On the surface it is just a desk but, now, I honestly think they mean so much to us. This is something that we have made just for you and this is something that I think is going to help out a lot right now. We want you to have it."