Building the future

Woods II students build desks for Salvation Army donation


Erica Peterson

Teacher Steven Cortez helps junior Jackson McCarty add the finishing details to his desk.

Erica Peterson , Staff Writer

In an effort to make a positive impact in a hurting world, woods II teacher Steven Cortez wanted to make a change. Cortez decided to wander off the normal teaching trail to create a project that would go on to impact others for many years to come. His woods II students would make desks to donate to students in need to use during at-home learning.

Cortez has been teaching woods for 29 years. However, this year, the nature of the class has changed. Woods II can be a great outlet and opportunity for many students to express their creativity and think outside the box.

“Woods II has always been a really open-ended class; it allows kids to apply what they have learned in woods I and make their own projects,” Cortez said. “But usually, at the beginning of woods II, we always make a project for the school or something of that nature ­— we will make a cabinet for teachers [for example].”

Cortez said he values teaching his students lifelong skills that will continue to be useful as they go on in their life and believes one of the most impactful things as a teacher is watching how his projects can change a student’s attitude or day.

“I just like seeing kids walk out with their chest puffed out, head held high because they made something that they are really proud of,” Cortez said. “It’s been really cool, and I like having kids being proud of their work. It’s not something that you make every day.”

The COVID-19 pandemic left Cortez with a grieving heart and a motivation to give back to the community. Cortez got the inspiration to make an impact while watching TV.

“I saw a story on NBC News about a young man that was making desks for young kids that didn’t have a desk to use during COVID,” Cortez said. “And with all of them being at home, they needed a place to work, and I was really inspired by that, and so I asked permission from [principal Scott Roberts].”

Cortez was moved by the story and wanted to create something similar within the woods II classroom. With the approval of Roberts, Cortez turned to different organizations to see who needed desks.

“I started calling around, and I called the Salvation Army, and I left a message, and they were like, ‘Yes we need whatever you are making,’ and I told them that we are making desks and she said she has some kids that are starting the after-school program because parents can’t be there, and they all need desks,” Cortez said. “It was a perfect fit, and they are looking forward to the desks.”

After finding a home for the class’s creations, the next task at hand was to design the desks in the most efficient and useful way possible. Cortez wanted to create a desk that was very functional for the children and the situation that they may be in.

“After calling the Salvation Army, we decided to make a 32-inch desk a little bit shorter because a lot of times these kids don’t have a lot of room in their home,” Cortez said. “And so the project entails making a desk that is portable, fairly light and has a drawer for them to keep their keepsakes and pencils and stuff in.”

Junior Tyler Wells said Cortez’s fun and relaxed personality led him to take woods II. Now, Wells said he thoroughly enjoys the class for his friends, but also because he can give back to the community.

“I had Mr. Cortez for broadcasting and he’s a pretty cool teacher and it’s fun to take a class with a teacher you really like,” Wells said. “This class has impacted me by seeing how other people are being affected by this pandemic.”

The giving back aspect of the project has motivated the students to professionalize their product, as well as giving it a personal touch. Senior Braden Crank is involved in the project and said he has enjoyed knowing that the desks are going to be put to good use.

“It has given me more incentive to work hard at the project and make it as nice and neat as I can,” Crank said. “I hope I can help out a little kid and their family and provide a good desk for them.”

Wells said one aspect of the project has really stuck out him: writing encouraging notes to the children who are going to be using the desk. Wells said this is a personal touch that truly adds to the project. The children receiving the desk not only get a nice surface to do their homework and activities on, but they also receive some supportive words from an older influence.

“We put some notes on the desks, one underneath the drawer and I put one underneath the legs if they ever find it, but we wrote a nice note to them and it was really nice to know that they will use it almost every day,” Wells said.

This project has brought perspective to the students as well as Cortez. This project has encouraged students to peer out of the “Johnson County bubble” and look into many of the privileges that many do not have.

“I want them to think outside themselves a little bit more; a lot of kids that are kids of Blue Valley Southwest are very fortunate ­— we have a lot of opportunities, we have a lot of options and we have a lot of support most times, and the kids we are giving these desks to do not have that,” Cortez said. “If I can get my students to think outside of the box and bubble, that will be a success.”

This project will not only make a positive impact on the desk recipients, but it also impacts the students making them. The experience of creating something which will benefit their own community and have a long-lasting effect on the children receiving the desks is something Cortez hopes will stick with his students forever.

“Hopefully, these kids will have these desks for years and they last forever and they can always think back to ‘hey, I received this desk from a kid who handmade it for me, a teenager just like myself,’” Cortez said. “Hopefully, it’s something they can really hold on to.”

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