Vanessa Barker co-founded The Welman Project two years ago to provide supplies to bootstrapped public schools and to cut down on waste. Along with several volunteers, Barker and co-founder Taylor Willis divert seven dumpsters’ worth of materials a month from local landfills.
Barker got the idea for the nonprofit nearly 10 years ago while working at New York Fashion Week. Following a Victoria’s Secret show, Barker saved 300 pounds of glitter that was bound for the garbage.
“All this stuff was getting thrown away,” she recalled.
She called several New York City charities to see if any of them would take the supplies. The nonprofits were limited in what they could take and when. Through her phone calls, Barker learned that the companies also charged small fees to donation recipients.
“I decided to take the glitter and peddle it around Manhattan and find a school that was interested in taking it,” Barker said. “That’s how the idea came about.”
Standing in one of Welman’s warehouses, this one behind First Congregational Church (just south of TCU), I got a sense of how the operation works. Several piles of cabinets, desks, school chairs, and other objects filled nearly a quarter of the large floor. Every week, businesses across Fort Worth contact Barker and Willis to pick up supplies that would otherwise be destined for the trash. Willis said most businesses hear about The Welman Project through word of mouth.
Pointing toward a bin of large cardboard cylinders, Barker said the tubes might be turned into impromptu instruments for a music class. A nearby box of plastic tote bags could be used to store art supplies, or the material could be cut up for a different use altogether, she said. Several local groups have started making the reuse of materials easier too.
“We receive a lot of used signage,” Barker said.
A lot came their way after a recent Arts Goggle, a yearly block party on West Magnolia Avenue, thrown by Near Southside Inc.
Near Southside “started printing on one side so we can use the other side,” Barker said. “It’s cost-effective for them, and it’s great for us. We’re trying to be the middleman. Nobody wants to see things go to the landfill” if they can be reused.
Barker and Willis field emails and phone calls about boxes of unwanted paper clips and other office supply donations throughout the week. The duo usually has a few days to make the pickup at no cost to the business. Combing through donation requests from Fort Worth school district teachers, Barker and Willis then deliver the supplies to classrooms, also at no cost to the teacher or the school district. Public school teachers spend an average of $500 out of pocket annually on supplies for their classrooms, according to the educational product trade association Education Market Association.
Within Fort Worth school district, 79 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, said district spokesperson Clint Bond.
“There’s an incredible lack of resources,” Barker said. “Resolving these problems goes beyond the school district. We as a community need to step up and take care of our neighborhood schools.”
The Welman Project is far from the only nonprofit working to support Fort Worth school district. Willis said her charity often collaborates with groups like Communities in Schools and Morningside Children’s Partnership, two nonprofits that also provide resources to needy schools but with the different goal of raising academic achievement.
Beyond donations, The Welman Project consults with teachers, either advising them on how reused materials can be used to reach curriculum goals or suggesting project ideas based on the resources available. The wide range of donations means Barker and Willis can offer supplies that can’t easily be requested through purchase orders at the school district. The program is so convenient for teachers to use, in fact, that school staffers often find it too good to be true.
“A lot of the teachers are like, ‘What’s the catch?’ ” Barker said with a laugh.
In the rare instances when a donation can’t find a home, the duo delivers the objects to Fort Worth-based Commodity Recycling Solutions as part of the nonprofit’s commitment to zero waste.
Last year, The Welman Project became a designated charity. Barker and Willis use the term “tiny but mighty” to describe their venture. Both founders volunteer their time (sometimes upwards of 50 hours a week) to keep the nonprofit afloat. The project has gone so well that a larger storage facility will soon be needed. One day, Barker and Willis hope to have the resources to purchase a school bus that can be retrofitted with storage shelves.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to make this happen,” Barker said. “We’re not going to stop doing this. It makes you feel good, but we’re not the heroes. The community is, because they are the ones providing the resources and making it available. We’re just the ones driving it around.”