James Ortega started his seventh-grade school year with a Zoom class from his bed in Gaithersburg. He said it is comfortable until it isn’t, although he didn’t have much of a choice. He didn’t have a desk.

He did his homework for algebra, his favorite subject, by balancing a notebook on pillows.

But a few days ago, James, 12, and his younger brother, Steven, 7, got a delivery of free desks and chairs so they could have their own workspaces while they navigate learning from home.

“I’m going to have more space to get organized,” said James, who attends Ridgewood Middle School in Gaithersburg. “Because then you can write.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to move online, students were tasked with finding ways to learn from home — often at a kitchen table, a couch, a bed or even on the living room floor. Online learning is challenging enough for all children, and not having a dedicated workspace makes it even harder to be focused and organized.

That’s why Jessica and Al Berrellez, who live in Gaithersburg and have three children, have spent the past several weekends delivering desks and chairs to students in Montgomery County who don’t have them. Al Berrellez, who works in sales and consulting in the building materials industry, makes some of the desks in his spare time, and friends and other volunteers make or donate the rest.

“Every kid deserves to have their own little workstation,” Al Berrellez said. “This was something, to me, that seemed simple enough to do but that would make a big impact in these children’s lives.”

Remote learning has only “exacerbated a lot of the inequalities” students face in the classroom, Jessica Berrellez said. They started their project “Desks by Dads” as a way to level the playing field for students who don’t have desks or other workspace furniture at home. So far, they’ve organized the delivery of 39 desks with the help of other parent volunteers.

At the moment, “Desks by Dads” serves students at three schools near their Gaithersburg home, but the concept behind the project is spreading quickly. A high school student in Virginia, a dad in Michigan and a family in North Carolina are all building desks for grade-school students.

The initial idea for the project came to Jessica Berrellez while she was scrolling Facebook over the summer and saw friends and neighbors posting the workspaces they created for the start of the school year. The Berrellezes did the same for their two school-age children, Bella, 12, and Gabrielle, 6, who have desks in their rooms.

But because of her involvement in the parent-teacher associations at her children’s schools, Jessica Berrellez said she knows there are plenty of other students who don’t have the space or resources to have a similar setup in their home.

She first tried to find free desks on Facebook Marketplace but didn’t have much luck. So, she turned to her husband, who was already in the middle of a home kitchen renovation. After watching a few tutorials on YouTube, he constructed a prototype desk out of glue, screws, simple lumber and plywood. It cost about $40 in materials and took about an hour or so to make.

They posted the final product on Facebook a month ago, created a page and started a fundraiser to offset the cost of materials. They raised close to $3,000 after a few days and closed the fundraiser because they figured they had enough money for building materials. Now, they’re trying to collect donated chairs to go with every desk that they and other volunteers make and deliver to students.

Welcome to the original Desks by Dads page! Desks by Dads is a personal weekend project started by Jess & Al Berrellez...

Posted by Desks by Dads on Tuesday, August 25, 2020

There are now more than 100 students on the waiting list for a desk. Most of the requests come from parents, but guidance counselors and teachers have also requested desks for students. Some teachers have even asked for their own desks, Jessica Berrellez said. The Berrellezes said it was a bit overwhelming to keep pace when the project started to gain steam, but they said it feels great to be in a position to help.

“We’re not a nonprofit,” Jessica Berrellez said. “We’re just two regular people doing this because we care about our children’s friends and classmates.”

Since word has spread about their initiative, friends and neighbors have been volunteering to build, donate or deliver furniture. One family from Landover built two desks after watching a story about “Desks by Dads” on Univision, according to the Berrellezes. The couple said they plan to host a community build this weekend, and they hope to make as many as 40 desks.

“We don’t really have a ton of time. This is just a weekend passion project for us,” said Jessica Berrellez, who works at the Food and Drug Administration during the week. “But, you know, it’s manageable because there’s so many people who’ve just stepped up to help.”

Other people who are doing similar projects include Colby Samide, a junior at Woodgrove High School in Purcellville, Va. Colby said he started his own project, “Desks for Distance,” in early September after first hearing about “Desks by Dads.” With some help, Colby has already built 100 desks, and his community woodworking efforts were recently featured on “NBC Nightly News.”

Stacey Ellis, a mother of two who lives in Charlotte, learned about the Berrellezes’ work with “Desks by Dads” through a local news report her friend shared on Facebook. Less than two weeks after watching the video, her family has mobilized to create their own version of the project, called “D Is for Desk,” distributing workspaces to students around Charlotte.

“In this environment, you’ve got to take your inspiration where you can get it,” Ellis said.

Two days after launching their own Facebook page for the family project, Ellis said they received requests for roughly 50 desks from four nearby elementary and middle schools. And the family has already raised more than $500 for building materials.

“How quickly it’s all coming in is really surprising and overwhelming in a fantastic way,” Ellis said.

The Berrellezes said the demand for desks has shown them that you don’t know what others in your community need until you go out and ask. Jessica Berrellez said she hopes the idea continues to catch on, adding how meaningful it has been to see the energy from the other projects.

“One person helping another person in a really small way isn’t going to be transformative but when you have lots of people doing small things together, maybe there’s power in that,” she said.

James, who no longer does his Zoom classes from bed, said he was looking forward to showing his classmates his improved workspace when he logs on for class. Schoolwork comes first for him, but once algebra is done, James said he’s excited to use his new desk for other purposes, such as playing “Fortnite” with his friends.

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