'A tremendous gift': Retired carpenter builds desks for Lombard students learning remotely
A good neighbor is someone like Al Alevizos.
He takes the time to get to know the people who live in his Elmhurst neighborhood. He steps up to help them even when they don't ask for it.
One of those neighbors is Katie Bryk, a reading specialist at Madison Elementary School in Lombard.
The two were making small talk early in the school year when Alevizos, out of neighborly concern, asked Bryk about the challenges of remote learning and how kids were coping with schooling from home.
Bryk told him about some of the disparities exposed by the pandemic.
"Some kids don't have workspaces," she said. "They're sitting on their floor in their kitchen. They might be in their bed."
That conversation was enough to compel Alevizos -- an unassuming, but attentive retired carpenter -- to volunteer his skills, give of his time, and spread goodwill.
Alevizos, 69, took it upon himself to build desks for students in Bryk's school district so they would have dedicated space of their own for learning at home.
"I'm fortunate enough to be able to have the tools and have the knowledge to do this," Alevizos said.
So far, he's built six desks for students in Lombard Elementary District 44. After winter break, the district's students will learn remotely through Jan. 8, before returning to a hybrid model.
The desks replace makeshift areas to help students settle into a routine for online classes.
"For families that might financially not be able to afford something like that, it's a tremendous gift because it helps everyone," Bryk said. "It helps the students be able to be more successful."
Alevizos constructed the desks with the same craftsmanship and eye for quality that went into furniture he made for his own home and loved ones.
"If you were to go in a store and buy one of these desks, one of the first ones I made would probably be $400 or $500," he said. "They're a nice piece of furniture."
Alevizos built the desks mostly out of pine and materials he's accumulated in a woodworking shop set up in his garage. His neighbors often see him there tinkering on projects.
"It can be 20 degrees. It can be 90 degrees. He'll have it just cracked open a little bit if it's freezing cold," Bryk said. "He's in there building things all the time."
Alevizos used to work for a cabinet manufacturer and then branched out on his own as a finish carpenter installing wood trims and cabinetry in homes.
"When you do something enough you get better at it," he said. "Believe me, I'm not this tremendous craftsman."
But it's clear he takes pride in building desks for remote learners. It took him about a week to make the first three, each with a different configuration. The desks have compartments so kids can organize their school supplies.
"This is obviously something that he's putting a lot of thought and care and time into so that they're special for the kids that get them, which makes it even more amazing," Bryk said.
After he finished three desks, Alevizos asked Bryk where he should take them. Her immediate response: "Bring them to District 44."
"District 44 didn't come out and say we needed anything," she said. "This was just Al saying, 'Hey, it's something I can do.'"
Alevizos delivered the six desks to the school district, and he's happy to build more. While he doesn't know all of the recipients, he is heartened by a district award and social media recognizing his desk donation.
"I don't typically like to be in the spotlight," Alevizos said, "but it's a good cause so I'll grin and bear it."
In an awful year, his neighbor hopes people find inspiration in Alevizos using his craft to give back.
"Instead of thinking about all of the things that we can't be doing right now, Al is a perfect example of, 'Well, what can we be doing? We have talents,'" Bryk said. "'We have things we're passionate about. How can we take it and make it work in this really difficult and challenging time to help other people?'"