While teachers who work in any diocesan Catholic schools often feel the pinch of budgetary concerns, this becomes even more of a concern in low-income areas where students' families find it difficult to afford school supplies, requiring teachers to buy them. However, thanks to the efforts of a retired autoworker and substitute teacher, The Teacher's Desk, located just off of Main Street in the city of Buffalo, has let teachers in eligible schools in Western New York shop for donated supplies free of charge since 2011.
John Mika, executive director of The Teacher's Desk, founded this initiative to fill a void that teachers in many schools have had to pay out of pocket to address for years. By making appointments in advance, teachers who work at schools where at least 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch may come to the warehouse, at 22 Northampton St., to pick up $1,000 in brand-new merchandise.
"I subbed at St. Gregory the Great in Williamsville and I taught in city of Buffalo schools, and saw an incredible difference between what kids have and don't have. I decided to affect more lives by opening a store," Mika said. "We have 230 schools, from Rochester to Ripley, from Niagara Falls to Salamanca."
Once teachers arrive, they receive a shopping list with predetermined amounts of items. They then go down each of the aisles to pick up the goods that have already been unpacked and sorted into neat rows. A "report card" pasted on the warehouse wall indicates that The Teacher's Desk served 6,000 teachers and 130,000 students in the 2016-17 academic year, with "God served: 1" at the top of the list. Local and national businesses and corporate sponsors, among others, donated $6 million in inventory last year.
In addition to sponsors, the Teacher's Desk would not be possible without the efforts of a team of 200 community members each week, 60 of whom are retired teachers, who assist Mika at the warehouse and help the teachers out as they pick out merchandise. For 2017-18, The Teacher's Desk opens Aug. 15, with signups starting last month. Teachers may reserve a shopping date at www.theteachersdesk.org.
"Three things happen here. One is we're helping kids in need, leveling that playing field. 'If you don't have a pencil, you don't have a chance, but if you have a pencil, who knows?' That's what I always say. The second thing is, we're encouraging teachers," Mika commented further. "The third part of it, we have special needs groups who volunteer here, every Monday through Thursday in the school year."
Sister Carol Cimino, SSJ, superintendent of Catholic schools, received a tour of the facility from Mika and liked what she saw and how it would help the diocese. She noted, "As Mr. Mika took me on a tour of the warehouse, he continuously paused to straighten out merchandise, rearrange items so they were more attractive, and interacted with the teachers who were shopping. Our Catholic school teachers whooped with joy as they came upon needed items that would make their classrooms more attractive and livelier."
The feedback Mika has received from public and private school teachers has been consistently positive. One beneficiary of The Teacher's Desk, Kristin Wright of Dunkirk High School, submitted a letter to Mika, thanking him for his assistance and noting her first trip there was "one of the single days I can remember that I did not have the words to express the humility and gratitude I felt for everyone who helped make this business a success." She witnessed "truly selfless acts of kindness and helpfulness from every volunteer."
Mika, who also worked for Kingdom Bound Ministries, which organizes the Christian music festival of the same name at Darien Lake, noted that The Teacher's Desk is a ministry as much as it is a community service. "It's all free. I always tell people that if you look at the Gospels, where Jesus fed the 5,000, He wasn't charging admission. There was no fee. He just fed them. They were hungry, and He fed them. That's what He's doing here. He's feeding people encouragement, purpose and school supplies," Mika said.