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Companies to Classrooms provides donated supplies to help teachers cope with tight budgets

Cary Weatherby
Scott Russell
Companies to Classrooms Executive Director Cary Weatherby says a mention in Oprah magazine brought about interest, but no donations.

Companies to Classrooms is a small, Bloomington-based nonprofit that collects surplus office supplies and gives them to teachers for free. In this economy, donated goods are up, but not the dollars, said Executive Director Cary Weatherby.

"We are getting a lot from companies that are downscaling," she said. "But we are also getting cut back on funding. It is a double-edged sword."

The nonprofit serves teachers in the Bloomington and Richfield school districts. It started in March 2006 and has a modest budget of just over $50,000 a year, enough to cover rent, lights, insurance, Internet and a part-time administrator. Weatherby, who volunteers her time, caught the attention of O, The Oprah Magazine.

The nonprofit's 6,000-square-foot warehouse space has shelves full of three-ring binders and paper supplies. It has staplers, tote bags, markers, glue, hanging files, binder clips, paper clips, hole punchers, tape dispensers, chairs and file cabinets. It has stuff that art teachers like (architectural and scrap booking supplies). It has quirky stuff (surgical booties, pedometers and 10,000 "light-up" pens). It has items that teachers creatively adapt to new uses. (Special-education teachers took plastic, stackable pencil trays to use as toothbrush and toothpaste holders for their students, Weatherby said.)

There are dozens of similar programs across the country, she said. They include Portland's School House Supplies  and Orlando's A Gift for Teaching. Cincinnati's Crayons to Computers distributed $8.6 million in supplies in 2007-2008, its website said. By comparison, Companies to Classrooms estimates it will give out about $250,000 to $300,000 in supplies this year.

Locally, Minneapolis-based World Vision runs The Storehouse, providing between $1 million and $2 million a year in free school and office supplies to Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. Manager Ann Oliver said it serves teachers at schools where at least 70 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, but can't supply all schools that qualify.

The Storehouse also supports churches and community organizations. It began serving schools in 1999. It plans to move to a 32,000-square-foot warehouse next fall, more than doubling its size. World Vision has 10 Storehouses in the United States; Minneapolis is part of a national procurement effort. Oliver said it did not compete with Companies to Classrooms.

Weatherby said she would like to expand Companies to Classrooms metrowide. Lower-poverty schools need help, too, she said. "Every school can use supplies."

Helping teachers

During a recent visit, Richfield teachers Ann Dougherty and Liz Jamieson were getting supplies to put in prize bags for family reading night. Teacher Melissa Campana was getting basic filing-and-paper-clip supplies for her first-grade class at Richfield's Dual Language School. "With a limited budget, this place has been a godsend," she said.

Teachers can come once a month and get up to 15 items a visit. Some items come in multiples. For instance, 10 highlighters count as one item. There are so many three-ring binders that they get labeled "NL" for no limit.

Teachers get approximately $75 to $100 worth of stuff each visit, Weatherby said. Research suggests that teachers spend $700 to $1,000 of their own money every year on school supplies. "If they come in once a month, hopefully we can cover their out-of-pocket expenses," she said.

Weatherby plans to help more districts by giving away the surplus surplus. That includes three-ring binders, binder clips, paper clips, hanging file folders, in-out boxes and about a dozen more items. They would be available to principals willing to drive there to pick them up. "I especially want to get to those schools in Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center and Robbinsdale — some of those harder-hit areas," she said.

Business outreach

If she had staff, Weatherby said she could do a better job of identifying companies that are merging, moving or downsizing — those that might be trying to rid of stuff. "I could fill a warehouse three times this size, easily," she said.

Weatherby recalled about a year ago, GMAC-RFC was cutting staff and consolidating operations. "They came in with 20 carts of office supplies twice a week for four weeks," she said. "Now we are looking at Best Buy and Target. We hope they will use our services."

Sometimes, donations result from simple mistakes. One company had ordered three-ring binders with the intention of printing information on the cover. The supplier sent binders that had a clear plastic pocket on front, a perfectly good binder but not a printable surface. It was less costly to give the binders away than to ship them back — so Companies to Classrooms got 1,600 in one shot.

"It still amazes me," she said. "I was thinking I could have a service where if someone had a surplus something they could call me and I would pick it and take it to a school. Little did I know there was all this stuff."

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