While visiting the St. Louis area, a teacher from Mississippi happened upon the St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Centerand found dozens of newly donated beakers, glass test tubes and other classroom laboratory equipment. The teacher told founding Executive Director Susan Blandford “if it wasn’t for your program we wouldn’t have Science class, because all of the materials have to come out of my pocket.”

Many of us have heard stories about teachers who are scrambling to find inexpensive school supplies and materials for art projects. At one point in our lives, each of us has likely contributed egg cartons, milk jugs, buttons or other household castaways to a neighborhood school for use in an art class. With tiny supply budgets and limited resources, teachers have spent decades finding and working with recycled materials in their classrooms.

The St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center is a virtual wonderland for creative minds. Everything is donated by the general public or by local industries, providing 20,000 pounds of materials each year. The Center’s mission is to keep reusable items out of landfills and provide them to children and classrooms that desperately need them. When asked where all of these donations come from, Susan advises, “word of mouth seems to propel a lot of the donated goods, with a lot of people just walking in and dropping things off.” Pointing to several large stacks of multi-colored straw hats, Susan remarked that they had received an entire tractor trailer load of them from a donor.

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A lifelong educator and mother of three, Susan founded the St. Louis Teachers’ Recycle Center in 1992 while still working as a full time teacher. Years earlier she traveled to Italy to study the Reggio Emilia Approach, a philosophy of early childhood education that leans heavily on the arts, and is paired with plenty of structured and unstructured play time. Children are allowed to explore, experiment and express their feelings through play and are active participants in the direction of their learning process.

Eager to learn more about the Reggio Emilia Approach, Susan then attended another conference in Boston and, through an enrollment mishap, ended up in a class on “Recycling.” The class was led by Dr. Walter Drew, the founding Executive Director of the Boston Public School’s Recycle Center. “From there I was sold,” says Susan. “Teacher’s spend so much of their own money on their stuff. I’ve got teachers that come to me and say ‘if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have blocks in our kindergarten classroom, because we can’t afford them!”

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The vast amount of donated inventory crammed into the small store front is overwhelming. There are garbage cans filled with wine corks and magic markers, large bins of buttons, shelves of trophies, shoe boxes, scrap fabric, empty jugs, wood blocks of various shapes and sizes, and an incredible amount of paraphernalia from the medical supply industry. Many other items are indescribable and are a complete mystery, but provocative in every case.

Susan started the first Recycle Center in her garage, and then moved it to a Junior Achievement Building in her neighborhood where she was allowed to distribute materials for three months out of the year; June thru August. “It was a cinder block building with a tar roof, no windows and no air conditioning. I filled it in a month and I invited all of my teacher friends. It was my test market,” she confided.

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For the next few years Susan moved the materials back into and out of storage for the summer months, until Dr. Sanford of Lindbergh School District invited her to take up residence in one of their schools. The Recycle Center continued to grow and moved another 17 times over the years, finally settling at their current stores in Chesterfield Mall and on Lemay Ferry in South County.

The organization has a traveling Recycle Center called “VanGo” that is currently filled with children’s books. Children are encouraged to go on board and choose a free book, in exchange for the promise that they will read the book that they take. VanGo can be found out and about in the community visiting fairs, festival and other family-friendly events in the region. The group also maintains three pods that are located at different area schools by keeping them filled with supplies from the Recycle Center. When asked if she has enough inventory to keep the stores, van and pods filled, Susan replied, “I have more than I can possibly tell you … we have a warehouse filled with donations.”

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The store is open to the general public, and everything is FREE, with a small service fee of $1 per pound. For those who like to buy in bulk, Pound Passes in larger amounts can yield more poundage, for instance a $90 pass will gain you 125 pounds of materials. The smallest Pound Pass is $10 for 10 pounds.

A list of accepted items for donation can be found here.

Donations are only accepted during normal store hours. Since the stores are manned by volunteers, they are not open every day of the week. Visitors should consult store hours on the Center’s website at www.sltrc.com.

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Susan Blandford is also the founding Executive Director of Play Your Art Out, an interactive, hands-on workshop and play space for children located in Chesterfield Mall. To learn more about Susan and her passion project, check out the article Play Your Art Out: “You just can’t be wrong in here.”

 

Article written by VALERIE TICHACEK on St. Louis County Arts.