Most of us remember sitting at a desk when we went to school. We older ones remember a hole on the right hand side to put your inkwell. A few us might remember dipping a girl’s pigtail in the bottle of ink we kept in that well. I did it in the third grade to Nancy sitting in front of me. I also remember School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Leona coming back and trying to slap me for doing so. I ducked and she hit the girl behind who immediately began to cry. Sister comforted the girl and forgot to punish me. Whew!
But imagine going to school and finding there is no desk nor chair for you. Or you find the desk and chair is so old that it falls apart two or three times that year. Or you have to sit on the floor. Or you learn that if you want a desk and chair your family must provide it for you, and you have to take it from classroom to classroom as you progress in school. At first it is too big for you, and then two years later the right size, and finally too small as you grow and the desk does not. But it is yours after all.
Yes, this is the situation in many schools in mission countries. While most do provide desks, many are so worn out they need to be replaced. This might be hard for us in Ohio to comprehend. We not only have desks for all our students, we have thousands of extra desks.
In the year 2000 in Guatemala and later on in 2003 in Belize, we noticed the need for desks in many schools. Aware of the excess desks in Ohio — many new schools were being built and officials did not want to take old desks into the new schools — we saw the opportunity of providing desks for needy students. Partnering with Rotary International of Northwest Ohio and its contacts with Chiquita Banana, we started sending desks by semi-truck containers to Central America.
At first we got the charity rate from Chiquita, $1,000 per container. We could get 140 to 160 desks per container, plus books, diapers, medical equipment, computers, pencils, crayons and notebooks. We started contacting schools and in five to six years sent more than 10,000 used school desks to Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, San Salvador and Peru. Public and Catholic schools from Galion, Ottawa, Youngstown, Toledo, Findlay, Defiance, Crestline, Norwalk, New London and a few places I don’t remember all donated used desks. A classmate of mine, Dick Filisky in Youngstown, who also sent desks, even would have the desks newly painted for us.
Unfortunately shipping costs kept escalating. When it reached over $5,300 a container it did not seem cost effective and we stopped. Would that the work could go on, desks are badly needed.
Father Robert Haas is a senior status priest of the Diocese of Toledo and regularly organizes mission trips to Belize and Tanzania. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.