CINCINNATI — For Mark Barsman, woodworking was initially just a hobby that kept him busy after he retired from General Electric in 2017. Then last December, he found out about a charitable cause that would allow him to put his crafty skills to good use.
Barsman was at Jewish Hospital, where his father was in the emergency room, when Barsman happened to catch a segment on ABC’s “World News Tonight with David Muir.” The segment highlighted various grassroots projects in which volunteers built desks to give away to local children for at-home learning. The independent projects have been popping up in various parts of the country. Barsman was touched by the idea and decided to get in on the action.
“I like to find other ways to reach out to people in need," Barsman said. "This was just one that sort of blended my interest in woodworking and helping the immigrant and refugee community and folks that are lower income.”
The Symmes Township resident contacted a number of his friends and family members, asking for donations and helping hands to build the desks. Barsman’s contacts enthusiastically responded, offering an overwhelming amount of support and generosity by donating about $3,000. A handful of his friends also pitched in to help him build 50 desks and chairs in 10 weeks. The desks were ultimately distributed through Heartfelt Tidbits, a nonprofit that supports refugees and newly arrived immigrants in Southwestern Ohio.
“A lot of these families are underprivileged and have economic challenges. And with the pandemic and the implementation of at-home learning, many of them don't have their own space to be able to sit and work on schoolwork,” Barsman said. “This gave them an opportunity to have something their own, and just makes that transition to learning a little bit easier and better for them.”
Sheryl Rajbhandari, executive director of Heartfelt Tidbits, said she was happy to help bring the project to fruition.
“When Mark shared his desire to build desks for students, I knew we’d have kids that would love them," Rajbhandari said.
Andrea Zamora Rodriguez, 12, and Lizbeth Zamora Rodriguez, 8, of Evanston, were two of the children to receive desks. As students of the Academy of World Languages, Andrea said at-home learning was tiresome and less productive before they had their dedicated learning spaces. She said she used to work in their family living room while her younger sister once sat in the kitchen.
“It was hard because sometimes our mom would have to make breakfast and then we would have a lot of noise, and we couldn’t listen to what they were saying during school,” she said.
Since having received their desks, Andrea said virtual learning feels less cramped and uncomfortable.
“It has been better for us because we have our own space and we get to learn better,” Andrea said.
The girls’ mother, Fabiola Rodriguez Ornelas, said the desks have a quaint, sentimental charm. Rodriguez Ornelas is an immigrant from Mexico and said she is grateful to have the desks in her home. “This desk reminds me [of] when I was [a] child because I had one the same in the school ... so I was so happy to see this desk.”
In addition to the desks and chairs, families also received donated boxes of school supplies from Flipside Products, a school and office supply manufacturer based in Roselawn. Barsman and his friends said they will likely pick up the effort again as the weather gets warmer, as it will be easier to build and paint more desks outdoors. They said many of the children who received desks had siblings who wanted to have desks as well. Plus, leading another iteration of the effort would offer them another opportunity to keep contributing to a good cause while spending more time with one another during the pandemic.
“When COVID is around, you look for any way to do something outside the house that is useful,” said Ken Kabel, of Amberley Village.
Kabel was one of Barsman’s handful of friends who pitched in to construct the desks. Like Barsman and Rajbandhari, he has a passion for finding ways to help out immigrant neighbors from disadvantaged backgrounds. He also said that being able to reconnect with his pals after having to socially distance for so long made the project even more appealing.
“We're in a time in which people don't always know how to help. And when you reach out and help give them something specific ... most people want to be involved,” Barsman said. “And this was a great way to reach out to kids that are struggling.”