It started with a desk. Upon hearing from a friend of his family that their daughter didn’t like school, Gary Burnett decided to investigate. Asking the young student why she wasn’t a fan of school, he learned that she didn’t feel a connection to the classroom, especially once she came home for the day.
“I asked her where she studied and did her homework. She said usually just on the floor, in front of the TV. Now, that’s no way to study or be motivated to study. So, I got her a desk,” said Burnett, who splits his time between the Golden Isles and Maine. “A friend had a whole bunch of old cigar boxes, so we reworked those to become the pen and pencil holder for the desk. It all just rolled out from there.”
And by “it all,” Burnett isn’t joking. He has spearheaded an effort in Glynn County schools and through the Boys and Girls Club of Southeast Georgia to encourage students to work hard and possess an educational passion that can spur successful futures. To date, Burnett has handed out 107 desks through his Desk of My Own campaign to students in the county, but the desks are not simply given to just any student. Rather, students are charged to write essays explaining why they deserve their own desk for their home, and school staff decide who is the most deserving.
“For some students, at home, this is their space, their only space that they can say ‘this is mine,’” Burnett said. “When a student has that special place to study and do homework, they feel more motivated to do better and be better in the classroom.”
At his school, Glynn Middle School principal Matt Blackstone said the desk-based project has become a hit. In the most recent desk-awarding essay competition, more than 100 students vied for the reward, he said.
“Out of an 800 population school, I’d say that’s pretty good participation,” Blackstone said. “Students really appreciate this program and get excited about it.”
Burnett hasn’t limited the efforts of his nonprofit agency, UDA Star Foundation, to only providing desks. He has expanded his efforts and also donates Kindles, with books uploaded, to area schools. So far, 114 Kindles and more than 1,600 books have been donated through his Mount Readmore campaign.
It’s imperative, Burnett said, that students have ready access to the type of modern technology needed for success later in life, as well as advanced literacy skills to ensure they achieve higher goals.
“But when you think about it, a student who may not have an on-grade-point reading level is going to be embarrassed to read in front of others, because their book choice won’t be as far along. On a Kindle, students can read on their level without anyone seeing what they are reading. That was one huge key for why this project was needed,” he said.
Burnettt has also become a huge helping hand behind the Glynn Middle School MakerSpace project. The art and craft-style learning initiative encourages students to develop science, technology, engineering and math skills through a less-than-traditional method, using unique sets of teaching mediums to plunge into STEM curriculum.
“I like to think of it as STEAM, not STEM. That leaves room for the art aspect,” Burnett said.
To help further the school’s MakerSpace efforts, Burnett has offered up more than 40 pounds of Lego products, LittleBits technology materials and additional craft supplies to keep the project ongoing.
For the first two years of his donation efforts, the projects were funded out of his own pocket. But earlier this year, Burnett was able to obtain nonprofit status and now calls on community partners to help with extra expenses as needed. Because, as he notes, advancing education is a community mission.
“This has really become like my part-time job,” Burnett said. “Not that I’m complaining. I want students to achieve and do well. They can’t do that if they don’t have all the tools necessary. I’ve spent some 30 years in the software industry, but I have developed a real passion for education and especially literacy. I saw a need, and I’m trying to fill it.”