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Reduce, reuse, repurpose: Welman Project connects business with classrooms

🕐 8 min read

The Welman Project

A creative reuse resource for the community and the classroom

From the project website:

Examples of how everyday materials can be repurposed:

– Old office supplies enhance classroom activity center.

– Used furniture turns a neglected library space into a cozy reading corner.

– Surplus building materials become part of a school theater set.

– Outdated company banners find new life as a school spirit mural.

Source: The Welman Project

Vanessa Barker and Taylor Willis started the Welman Project with a purpose – actually a repurpose.

Fort Worth’s Welman Project aims to help area businesses and organizations make use of their surplus materials that might otherwise end up in landfills. Since September 2016, the organization has reused an average of 76 dumpsters worth of material or about 8 dumpsters a month. That’s about $7,000 worth of material each month.

Recognizing that they could act as the connector between the businesses with extra materials and the classrooms and teachers in need, the two formed the Welman Project as an official nonprofit in November 2015.

The seed for the organization was planted when Barker was working as a preschool teacher in New York and participating in New York Fashion week. Seeing the tons of gently used or even new materials going to waste gave her an idea. After the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, she took 300 pounds of unused glitter and donated it to schools around Manhattan. For several years it was just a hobby, and as she did more work people began to ask what organization she was with. The Welman Project, she said, deciding on the name on the spot, though her nonprofit was still years away.

“Shelley Welman is my birth mother … and the first thing that popped out of my head was Welman Project,” Barker said. Though her birth mother is not involved in the project, “the idea of what she did for me to kind of give me a better home, a better life, is the spirit that lives on in the work that we do. I wanted to honor the selfless act and what she did for me and I think it aligns with what our mission is, which is to find a home for something that needs it.”

In 2014, she moved back to her childhood hometown of Fort Worth, where her parents, Drew and Robin Rohrer, have lived since 1982. Back home she reconnected with Willis, a graphic artist who had been her childhood best friend, to form and grow the organization.

“This is our home and it’s grown and changed in the time that we’ve grown up here,” Willis said. “It’s become such a vibrant, engaged community and we really wanted to do our part in that.”

Their goal is to be “a creative reuse resource for the community and the classroom.”

The National School Supply and Equipment Association estimates that teachers buy 77 percent of classroom supplies and materials with personal funds.

“Every company has stuff that they are throwing out because they don’t have the time or the resources to figure out what to do with it,” Willis added. “We are just that catchall of getting whatever companies want to get rid of and finding the right place to pass that along to.”

Since becoming a Fort Worth nonprofit, the Welman Project has donated to over 100 area schools and organizations, working with teachers from public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as local nonprofits and organizations such as The Warm Place, Fortress Youth Development and ACH Child Services.

“This project doesn’t work because of Taylor and myself,” Barker said. “This project works because literally everybody in our community is working on this project. A lot of people work for the Welman Project, they just don’t know it. It’s a movement, it’s a way of thinking.”

Through their mission statement, “Conserve Contribute Create,” and their new tagline, “Fill a classroom, not a landfill,” Barker and Willis hope to engage the community in making environmentally friendly choices that allow them to contribute in ways beyond a checkbook. The creative aspect comes into play when the donations allow teachers and students to do things like turning old cassette tapes into smartphone stands and VHS cases into pencil boxes.

“We’re trying to show that we all have a stake in how the schools are doing because that’s the future of Fort Worth,” Barker said.

Randi Wintersole, a third-grade applied learning teacher at J.T. Stevens Elementary, has been working with Willis and Barker since the end of last year to repurpose and use items for the classroom as well as the overall elementary campus.

“The Welman Project has shown their dedication to our campus time and time again. Their commitment will benefit staff and students alike,” Wintersole said. “No matter where my career takes me, The Welman Project will be a valuable contact.”

Wintersole is currently working with the Welman Project to create an outdoor learning environment.

“We will be repurposing tires into seats and they will also be helping us outsource materials to help cut costs. I have personally received bookshelves that will be repurposed into alternative seating,” Wintersole added. “Everyone I have been involved with has been extremely helpful, easy to talk to, and very excited to help.”

Another teacher who’s had the opportunity to work with the Welman Project is Applied Learning Academy’s Maria Solano.

Solano teaches 6th-8th grade theater and this is her first year working with the Welman Project to get supplies, costumes and more for her class and their projects. She heard about what the ladies do through another teacher and has since recommended the organization to her other teacher comrades.

“I have been a theater arts teacher with FWISD for six years and resources are not always available and trying to put on a production with not a lot of resources is very difficult,” Solano said. “A lot of times we have to borrow things or I have to buy things and we have to sort of figure out how are we going to get props, costumes and things like that.”

“When I found out about the Welman Project, I just called and said ‘Hi, I’m a theater teacher I need this and that,’ and they said, ‘Well, we don’t have that at the moment but we’re going to figure it out.’ Because of [Welman] I had a set for my UIL One Act Play,” she added. “If they didn’t have something, they knew where they could get it. I have nothing but amazing things to say about that program.”

In addition to the co-founders/executive directors, the Welman Project includes volunteers and a board of directors. Rebecca Jung, who works for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., is board president. Lane Hackemack, a nurse with Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital, is board secretary and Kate Lovelady, a freelance theater artist, is treasurer.

Many of the board members have children in the Fort Worth Independent School District, so they bring a parent’s perspective to the work the Welman Project does.

The Welman Project had its first major fundraiser in 2016 with North Texas Giving Day, raising $7,000. With that funding they’ve been able to collect and turn around $70,000 worth of material, goods and services.

“It’s important to us to receive support from the community as this is a project that benefits the whole community,” Willis said, adding that she and Barker are also pursuing corporate sponsorships and grants.

With more funds, the pair hope to buy a school bus they could repurpose as a mobile warehouse. Willis and Barker are driving 750 miles a month in their personal vehicles to pick up, store and drop off all donated materials.

“We want to grow, we need to grow. The demand is out there,” Barker said, adding that they hope to offer workshops and upgrade their current warehouse space to a larger, in-person, shopable inventory where teachers could come and playtest materials before they chose them.

The Welman Project is working on a new project with American Airlines. The company has decided to upgrade all of its airplane seats to leather, and it is donating 20,000 cloth seat covers to the Welman Project. The women plan to not only use the seat covers to make pencil cases for kids in need, but also to work with homeless shelters to teach their residents to use them to make bags.

Barker and Willis, both 33 with their birthdays two days apart, have a long history of friendship, fun and philanthropy. The pair attended First United Methodist Church Day School and William James Middle School and became fast friends. They made and wore costumes together, enjoying their shared interest in musical theater and developing a passion for education and the environment.

And in some sense they knew, even as children, that they would someday work together and make a positive impact on their community. The pair puts full-time hours into the Welman Project. In addition, Barker is a full- time stay-at-home mom to her 3-year-old daughter, Joey June, and Willis holds a full-time job as a graphic designer.

“A lot of people punch in and punch out of work. We don’t punch out ever,” Barker said. “We’re always working because it’s so joyful and so fun and I think we’re doing good so I go home at night and feel like I’ve put my positive footprint in the world.”

“We get to see a lot of positive interaction and we get to see a lot of smiles every day, and to go home and go ‘this is my job,’ is awesome,” she said. “It is really hard work, but I get to work with my best friend and that’s pretty fabulous.”

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