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Coronavirus led to this veteran's new passion: building desks for e-learners

Donnie Dewey, a business executive and Marine Corps vet creates high quality pine homework desks for children who are distance-learning, and do not have an appropriate place to work in their homes.

LUIS SANTANA/TAMPA BAY TIMES

By MARLENE SOKOL | Tampa Bay Times | Published: December 22, 2020

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LITHIA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Donnie Dewey learned woodworking from his stepfather, and it became a passion for him.

On Facebook, he saw stories about people who were building desks for distance-learning students during the pandemic.

I should do that, he thought. Then: I am going to do that.

He loves desks. He can see them in his head. “I love designing them.”

Building them was something he could do for families who might be struggling. He knew, from his stepmother who is a teacher, how tenuous education is for so many this school year.

But, for the 42-year-old business executive and former Marine, it was a whole lot more.

Dewey’s desk-making operation takes place in his FishHawk Ranch garage with tools that were passed on by his stepfather.

Theirs is a large, blended family where they often don’t use the prefix “step” to denote a parent or sister or brother. Dewey is an executive at a multinational staffing company. His wife, Evelyn, works part-time for a physician.

Like everybody, they have been met this year with difficult decisions and complications.

Thanksgiving was painfully small. Normally, there would be dozens of people in their 3,700-square-foot home.

Christmas is happening without Dewey’s 80-year-old father-in-law, who will self-isolate for safety in Orlando.

A grandmother, also in her 80\u2032s, used to fill her days with garden club, yoga class and a domino group. That’s all on hold. The family worries about her isolation.

Dewey’s two teenage children were distance learners this past semester, mingling only with a handful of friends. But the high school social scene beckons, and tough decisions have to be made for January.

Elsewhere, people are facing different obstacles.

Dewey’s stepmother, Kathleen, teaches physical education at Mango Elementary School, where 89 percent of the students qualify for free lunch and about 40 percent are distance learning.

Teachers struggle to give the “e-learners,” as they are called, a quality education across a video screen.

“They might be sitting on their bed, or on the floor, and it’s just not the best place for learning,” said the school’s principal, Sabrina Ruiz.

So Dewey approached his stepmother with his idea about building desks. She took it to Ruiz, who loved it. They settled on a size that would fit in a small home — and still be shared, if necessary, by siblings of different ages. “I round every edge so they’re safe,” he said.

It was Kathleen Dewey who suggested a cubby, where the students could store laptops and supplies. The lid on top opens with a piano hinge. After consulting with his wife, Dewey decided not to add any motivational stickers, but to allow the children to personalize them if they wish.

Soon they were making several desks at a time, assembly line style. Dewey gets a 10 percent military discount at Lowe’s and buys the pine in bulk, milling it down to size himself to save money.

He doesn’t charge for the desks, although one parent insisted on slipping him $20. His children help sometimes. His wife applies the finish.

Recipients include Jose Lopez, a Mango Elementary father of three whose children were beginning to look a little bit too relaxed during their home studies. Teachers would tell them to pull out a book and they’d have to scramble to find it. A third-grade teacher connected Lopez to Dewey, who delivered three desks.

“We cleared a spot in the living room for two of the desks, and my son brought one in the bedroom because he wanted to be on his own,” Lopez said.

Dewey will be the first to admit that the project gives him a sense of satisfaction. “The selfish part about this is, it makes me feel really good,” he said.

But it is more than just a love of service.

A year and a half ago, Dewey was at his father-in-law’s house in Orlando, trying to re-size a door. He had a table saw but not the planer he should have used to thin the wood. The blade caught on a knot in the wood. It severed the tip of his thumb, which could not be re-attached, and had to be amputated down to the knuckle. It also sliced into a finger, which the doctors were able to salvage.

Dewey was rushed to an Orlando hospital by ambulance. After his recovery, he had to re-learn how to hold a pen. Former hobbies, including golf, and gym workouts, fell by the wayside. But a back-on-the-horse impulse made him want to return to woodworking. “And I’ve now grown to love this more than I loved any of those things,” he said.

It would be impossible, he said, to quantify what he learned from his accident, much the way no one can say what lessons the world will ultimately learn from the events of this year.

This much Dewey can know: How to fit together the legs and the stretcher, the apron, cubby and lid.

“I want to do as many as I can,” he said. “And I want to do it for children who are in need. And we’re just fortunate as a family that we are able to do it.”

(c)2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
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Donnie Dewey and his wife Evelyn pose for a portrait in his garage workshop in Lithia, Fla.
LUIS SANTANA/TAMPA BAY TIMES