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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.
Barbara's next move was to put the word out to friends, family and community groups for donations. The result: Barbara received so much—paper, pencils, file holders, cardboard tubes from paper towels and other recyclable materials—that she had to turn the family's garage into a mini warehouse and draft her husband, Richard, 52, and the kids to help. Richard, who works days at the Safeway supermarket chain, unloaded pallets of materials. The girls organized donations and set up displays.
Within weeks they were ready to open. Hours of operation at first were Saturdays from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. "We got the message out with a press release that landed us a radio interview and an article in the local paper," says Barbara. "As word spread and more teachers were showing up, we added more days."
But even after a few months the organization wasn't yet official. That's when Barbara met a woman who was about to retire and close her organization, which was similar to Barbara's except that it gave out new supplies. Barbara arranged to take over the name, Treasures 4 Teachers, then filed the paperwork to make her project a nonprofit. "This was a big step, but I felt I was ready," she says. "I had worked at Safeway for 13 years before the children were born, doing every job from cashier to stocker to office clerk and relief manager. I knew I could operate a warehouse-style business."
Richard backed her all the way, even though she wouldn't be drawing a salary from the venture anytime in the foreseeable future. They saw it as a side business that helped others. And Barbara was still employed by the Y. What they hadn't counted on, though, was that Barbara would face a serious lung infection. She put Treasures 4 Teachers on hold and used up her sick days at work. It was six months before she recovered. "At that point, the Y had no choice but to replace me," she says. By the end of 2006 she was ready to look for another job. "But in my heart I really wanted to give all my time to Treasures 4 Teachers,? she says. "School budgets had gotten terribly tight, so I knew there was real need."
She and Richard sat down, crunched some numbers and decided that if they sold their house, put the money in savings and moved to a rental, they could make it as a one-income family. The girls were enthusiastic about the plan. "How many kids can say their moms are majorly passionate about what they're doing?" says Katie.
Buoyed by her family's support, Barbara resolved to move operations out of her garage. She knew of a private school nearby with a 4,000-square-foot space sitting empty. When asked, they let her use it for a year, rent-free, until it was sold. At that point, Barbara put an ad on Craigslist for discounted space and found a facility in the industrial park where Treasures 4 Teachers is currently located. Her landlord charges only 25 cents a square foot instead of the usual 90 cents that a for-profit business pays.
To cover the rent and other expenses such as insurance and building maintenance, Barbara charges a $35 annual membership fee and relies on cash donations from area businesses and her board of directors to make up the rest. She also asks shoppers to donate $5 for each bagful, and they can take as many as they want at every visit.
Treasures 4 Teachers doesn't have full-time paid staffers, although Barbara recently hired several part-time temps. She and 30 volunteers (including some from the same companies that donate surplus goods) do most of the sorting and organizing. Eventually, she'd like to draw a salary and also have a permanent staff. For now, though, the Blalocks sold their house and are managing on Richard's salary. "We used to have big bedrooms, a family room and a pool," says Katie, who volunteers full-time at Treasures 4 Teachers every summer. "Now we just have a little backyard, and my room is really small. Amber mostly lives in Chicago, but when she comes home to visit we have to share a room. We don't mind, though. We're proud of our mom."
Richard is as supportive as he was at the beginning. Barbara is convinced that's because he, like the girls, spends a lot of time working for the organization. "All you have to do is listen to the teachers talk to one another while they're shopping to get the full impact of what we're accomplishing," she says. "I remember one who was so grateful just for a box of erasers. Her students didn't have any, and they couldn't correct their spelling."
She hears stories like that all the time. For example, Gina Ucci, a 46-year-old first grade teacher at Eugene Field Elementary in Mesa, Arizona, stocks up every fall on three-ring binders and sheet protectors so each child in her class can create a memory book that showcases the year's artwork and writing. "If I had to pay retail prices," says Gina, "I could never afford to have the kids make these keepsakes."
Karen Hanisak, 56, has been frequenting Treasures 4 Teachers since she started working at a K-8 school in Tempe four years ago. "I can do so much more with my students," she says. "Last semester I created my own board games for math and literacy practice with materials I got there. The children actually look forward to using them for the extra work they need." She also recently picked up a pair of two-drawer filing cabinets for $5 each. "It's a 45-minute drive each way, but I make the trip at least every other week," Karen says. "I come not only for the great stuff but also because I get ideas from other teachers while I'm there."
There are even shoppers who travel from Flagstaff and Yuma, over three hours away. "We expect to have an affiliate open in that area and in Tucson by the end of the year," says Barbara. "We already have a board of directors in place, and we're researching a site." She's had so many inquiries from other states that her long-range goal is to establish multiple centers nationwide. "Just imagine that every child could have everything he or she needs in order to succeed," she says. "That's my ultimate dream."
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
UPDATE: Treasures 4 Teachers suffered a huge setback August 8, 2010 when heavy rains brought down the roof of their warehouse. "One of the volunteers heard a crack," says Barbara. "We were going to grab the computers, but when we heard a second crack, I said, 'We better run.'" Everyone got out safely, but three-quarters of the inventory was destroyed—a loss not covered by insurance—just as school was starting. "We've had so many offers of help," says Barbara. "Volunteers are actually delivering to teachers as requests come in. We're still in business!"