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A store where teachers can shop for free

On the surface, the Teacher’s Desk looks like any other warehouse store — a large, simple building with unpretentious shelving and bins with products. This place, however, is much different. Shelves are filled with books, decorations and school supplies — and all of it’s free.

“It’s like Christmas — wow!” said Sheryl Barksdale, a teacher at Henry J. Kalfas Magnet School in Niagara Falls, her cart overflowing with folders, notebooks and backpacks. “This is beautiful. This is very helpful.”

Teachers at regional low-income schools — where at least 70 percent of students participate in the free-or-reduced lunch program — can shop at the Teacher’s Desk once a semester for new supplies, donated by the Kids in Need Foundation, NAEIR, Feed the Children and other organizations.

This year, about 5,000 teachers received more than $5 million in supplies from the Teacher’s Desk, allowing the organization to touch more than 100,000 children around the area. As the school year wraps up, the nonprofit will celebrate its fifth anniversary — a huge milestone for John Mika, the organization’s passionate founder.

John Mika with volunteers from Buffalo Public School 42.

Mika, who retired after 30 years at General Motors, launched the Teacher’s Desk in 2011 after working as a substitute teacher in Buffalo and experiencing first-hand how a lack of resources impacts a child’s ability to learn.

“If you have a pencil, you have a chance,” he said. “The average teacher spends about $800 [in supplies.] They’re spending their own money on core items, but here they not only get the core items, but arts and crafts, music and all kinds of stuff that opens up creativity for teachers. That’s huge.”

At the Teacher’s Desk, each educator can shop for about $1,000 worth of new, free supplies for their classroom, with art, music and gym teachers receiving additional supplies to accommodate the increased number of students they serve. In addition, first-year teachers receive an extra box donated by Yoobi, a national organization, that’s bursting with crayons, colored pencils, glue and more.

“We made it into a celebration. We opened the Yoobi box together, and the students took ownership of the items,” said Jenn Bialek of her first classroom at Aloma D. Johnson Charter School in Buffalo. “I used the supplies as home resources for my kids. They didn’t have things at home, so that was how they could do their homework.”

Bialek now teaches second grade at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School in Amherst and volunteers at the Teacher’s Desk every week to give back.

“This gave me so many resources that I would never have been able to give my students,” Bialek said. “I was able to build up book libraries for them and provide them with leveled readers and tools they could learn with. Otherwise, I would have been pulling together whatever I could just to do the minimum.”

That spirit of generosity rings throughout the Teacher’s Desk, which has about 200 weekly volunteers and works with student volunteers from 18 special needs programs throughout the area.
Robin Penberthy, a CPA, began volunteering after her son left for college, and now donates about 30 hours of her time every week.

“There is just something about this place,” said Penberthy. “It’s inspirational every day. I love working with people, and it’s a way for me to mentor and give back. It’s just a wonderful place.”

Mika said the organization’s mission is threefold — to provide supplies to students in need, volunteer opportunities for community members and encouragement for hardworking educators around the region.

“Any child who comes to school prepared and ready to learn will be 10 steps ahead,” said Janet Venator, a reading teacher and librarian at Westminster Community Charter School. “It boosts their self-esteem, it gets them excited [about school] and it’s one less thing for them and their parents to worry about.”

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