While I strolled and chatted with this gregarious duo at Fortress YDC, a center that provides mentoring, schooling and spiritual development for 150 underprivileged children, Vanessa Barker and Taylor Willis frequently stopped to point out items the center received through the Welman Project. Fake flowers, bookcases, metal cabinets, yarn, picture frames — it was a hodgepodge of randomness that shared a single trait: They are items donated from local businesses and repurposed for use by schools and youth development centers.
In 2008, Vanessa and Taylor founded the Welman Project, a nonprofit organization that distributes surplus materials to in-need education facilities, which serves as a one-two punch of promoting conservation and education. We sat in a few school chairs — with children’s voices in the background — and quizzed the pair on their ingenious organization, the state of Tarrant County schools and what they love about Cowtown.
FW: I’ve noticed you’re both in this constant mode of what can be used for something else. Can you explain how you got into that mindset? It’s an interesting mindset to get in that conservation mode and seeing the reuse of things.
Vanessa: Taylor and I, we went to preschool together, but then we didn’t realize that we knew each other until she came over to my house for a slumber party in the sixth grade. We both went to William James Middle School. We are a product of Fort Worth ISD; we went to public school all throughout.
At William James we had an amazing science teacher named Mr. Blake Sills, and he made science — a subject I hated — cool because it was all about applying what we were learning in the classroom out into the world and how we can make a difference. I think Taylor and I both gravitated to that.
What my school didn’t have at the time was shocking. You just kind of start going, “How can I take what’s getting thrown away to apply it to this, and what are the different ways that we can teach math and science and literacy and social studies with this one object.” When stuff comes across our path, it’s not like, “Oh, this is a file tray.” We try to think of all the different ways and all the different subjects in all the different grades that this can be used.
FW: Do you have to teach teachers how to use these things?
Taylor: We try to work one on one with teachers ‘cause every classroom is different; every teacher has different goals for what they’re trying to accomplish. We just try to talk to them and say, “What are your projects? What are you buying right now, and let’s look at what could be used right here in this warehouse instead.” There’s so much stuff out there, such a variety of things that usually we can find something that can be substituted for this brand-new off-the-shelf product. It’s just a slight modification to reuse.
Vanessa: I do wanna say that, there’s more than a handful of teachers in our district, in our community, that are giving us ideas. Then we get to pass those on. It really is a collaboration. The shopping experience at our warehouse is more like a brainstorming session. It’s not, okay go shop.
Taylor: It’s not just lecturing the teachers about how to use things.
Vanessa: Yeah. They ask as many questions as we ask them as well, and then we build on that. I would say the file tray thing is really fun ‘cause you can take a file tray and you can actually make it into a loom.
On a younger student level, that’s fine motor skills, that’s teaching them color, pattern, texture. On an older, it’s talking about the history, the different cultures that use weaving, what it means, how do you tell a story with that, okay now we’re gonna write that story.
FW: Well, everything you’re doing, it sort of begs the question as to why it’s a problem in the first place. Why are schools so low on supplies? What do you think Tarrant County can do better? Why is it a problem?
Taylor: I think listening to teachers, there’s very broad plan of what’s gonna go into a school, and that doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of the different classrooms and what teachers are trying to do. Not every teacher needs 30 packs of construction paper; some do, some need scissors instead. So, addressing individuals, schools and classrooms and students. Everybody is different; everybody needs different things. That’s where it’s lacking; it’s meeting the individual needs.
Many schools in Fort Worth certainly have a large percentage of kids who are economically disadvantaged. And most of the schools we go into, not every kid can bring in that school supply list at the beginning of the year. So not every kid has a pencil and a binder and a notebook because their families aren’t able to provide those things.
Vanessa: There are a ton of organizations that are filling backpacks and all that kind of stuff. But I think what’s misplaced is what those teachers in classrooms actually need.
No matter how wealthy your school is, or your district is, your teachers are still spending their money. Seventy-seven percent of classroom materials, teachers are buying with their own money, and 71 percent of what’s going in our landfills is actually stuff that can be recycled or reused, and businesses account for two-thirds of what’s going in our landfills.
FW: So, you’re both pretty well traveled. Why Fort Worth? I know it’s where you’re from originally, but you probably could have done this anywhere.
Vanessa: When we went away, basically right around when we entered college, Fort Worth was just like you went to the Chili’s and whatever. When I came back a decade later, it was an exciting place to be, and I was really proud of my hometown, and right now Fort Worth is just bursting with entrepreneurs and startups and so many great nonprofits that aren’t stepping on each other’s toes. This is where I wanna be. It’s a great place for a woman to be.
Taylor: Oh. It’s a great place for a woman to be. Yeah, it could work someplace else, but I want it to work here.
Vanessa: Yeah. This is a special community of people that really want to better the community around them and be a part of something together, and we just found nothing but excitement and joy and people wanting to support what we do and support their education system and help their environment.