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Retiree Gives Back, Builds Desks for Students to Call Their Own

During the pandemic some children doing school from home don't have a space for learning

Man standing in a woodworking shop
Courtesy Ralph Kemptner
Red and black desks in a school hallway
Courtesy Ralph Kemptner

While surfing woodworking videos on YouTube, 70-year-old Ralph Kemptner came across one about an organization building desks for homeschooled children.

The Vancouver, Washington, resident knew his church often partnered on projects with nearby Marrion Elementary School, which has been teaching remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and wondered whether he could use his carpentry know-how for a higher purpose.

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He checked with his pastor, Matt Daniells, who has three children at the school. Daniells checked with the school — and the answer was a resounding yes.

Not everyone has a space of their own at home to focus on schoolwork. So Kemptner built 10 desks — painted red and black in the school colors. As soon as they were delivered, the school had a waiting list with requests for 10 more.

So Kemptner went back to work.

"This is a way for me to use the skills God gave me to help people right now,” he says.

'This helps me believe in humanity'

It can be difficult under the best of circumstances for children to concentrate during virtual classes, especially when surrounded by toys and other comforts of home.

Factor in economic inequities, or parents working from home who need workspace as well, and the challenges become even greater.

"A lot of kids are engaging in school on their bed under the covers, at the dining room table, on a couch in their living room — just various places they can find around their home,” says Marrion Principal Matt Hill. “However, it's not necessarily a space set up for real successful learning."

Third-grader Stephen Laabs and his sister, second-grader Olivia, attended class and did homework in their kitchen or on TV trays before receiving one of Kemptner's desks. Their mom, Jill Cook, had searched for a desk they could share, but after she had to stop working to be home with her children, she couldn't afford one — and she didn't feel right taking money from her mother for “something that wasn't absolutely necessary."

The siblings take turns at the desk at the end of their bunk bed.

Cook says Kemptner's generosity has been a saving grace: “This helps me believe in humanity, really,” she says. This year has been hard, “and for him to do this, the only thing I can tell him is, ‘Thank you very much.'"

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Kemptner is always eagerly willing to give his time to serve others, says Daniells, pastor at Evergreen Bible Church: “I told him we could even use some church funds to help, and he said no, he would cover it."

Giving students a place for learning

A former Los Angeles police officer, Kemptner became more serious about woodworking in retirement. A few years ago he helped remodel the Marrion teacher's lounge.

For the desk design, Kemptner found a simple plan online and made some modifications. Then he went to work in his garage, crafting the desks from 3/4-inch plywood.

The two-tiered finished product is fairly compact — 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep, small enough to fit in a small house or apartment. The upper tier is a recessed shelf for books and other study materials.

Kemptner plans to continue making desks and hopes other people will join the effort, no matter where they live. Though he uses some specialized tools, he says others can do the same thing just by using a drill and circular saw.

Principal Hill says the donations mean more than many people realize: “Maybe in an adult's mind, it's only a desk. But in a kid's mind, it's a place that they can kind of call their own throughout the learning day, which is so important."

For his part, Kemptner says he feels uncomfortable taking any credit: “God has blessed me with so much — an ability, tools, and time, now that I am retired — and I'm just passing on that love to these kids."