Several days a week, Barbara Blalock pulls up to the 10,000-square-foot facility in Tempe, Arizona, that houses Treasures 4 Teachers, her not-for-profit center which assists educators who have big ideas but limited funds. Inside, aisles and aisles of shelves hold bins of brightly colored buttons and beads, stacks of stickers and scrapbooking supplies, and an ever-changing assortment of paper, pencils and three-ring binders.
Barbara greets her crew and they all go to work preparing for the influx of teachers—50 to 100 a day—who arrive on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For a nominal fee shoppers fill as many bags as they want with supplies. They also have access to a die-cut machine, a copier, a laminator and a library of how-to books. There's even an ongoing series of free hands-on workshops packed with ideas for how to use the materials. "Our goal is for everyone to leave here with lots of suggestions to implement in their classrooms," says Barbara, the 46-year-old mother of three daughters, Amber, 22; Brittany, 18; and Katie, 16.
These are goods and services the teachers wouldn't have any other way. Barbara first became aware of the need in 2003, when she was the regional director of 13 preschools run by the YMCA. "We didn't have a budget for even the basics," she says. "Kids can't learn to write and draw without pencils and crayons and paper. Teachers can't be creative and effective without binders and scissors and staplers and paper clips." Parents, she knew, could not be expected to fill the gap. "It's beyond most people's budget," she says.
With a little research she realized that the problem was more widespread than she had thought. In Arizona over half of all K-8 students can't afford lunch, let alone school supplies—typical of many areas. Across the country teachers are averaging $493 a year of their own money to make up the difference, with 7% of them shelling out around $1,000, according to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association.
In a nation where there's such abundance, Barbara felt sure there had to be a solution. Perhaps, she reasoned, big businesses would have inventory they didn't need. As a trial run she called Intel, the giant technology corporation with a campus in nearby Chandler, Arizona, and asked for donations. "Within days I received a shipment of writing implements, files and binders," she says. "I didn't even fill out any forms. Everything they sent to me would have gone to a landfill anyway, so they were glad we could make use of it." Heartened by that success, Barbara solicited donations from nearby branches of companies like Goodrich, Ikea, Motorola and Wells Fargo. "They all jumped on board," she says. Trader Joe's came through with a donation of large reusable shopping bags.