Vanessa Barker, left, and Taylor Willis created the Welman Project to repurpose material and help underfunded schools.

March 29, 2017

Surplus material from offices and events that would have gone to a landfill is being repurposed into much-needed classrooms materials, thanks to a new Fort Worth nonprofit. 

Taylor Willis, cofounder of The Welman Project, said the idea for the 501c3 organization began a number of years ago. She and cofounder Vanessa Barker, who both grew up in Fort Worth have always been passionate about environmental issues

“Vanessa was a preschool teacher in San Francisco, but was working a temporary job in New York as an assistant project manager for Fashion Week,” explained Willis. 

Welman Project donated pianoThese seemingly unrelated career paths collided when Barker noticed all the materials being thrown out after the runway shows were over. 

“Things like glitter, fake snow, foam core and fabric are gold in a preschool classroom," said Willis. 

Barker began taking the items to grateful schools in New York short on resources.

"The thought of growing this concept into a nonprofit followed her around until she made it back to Fort Worth in 2014.”

The Welman Project coordinated the donation of a piano to Grand Prairie ISD.

The two jumped at the chance to go into business together and Willis said they began the official company in late 2015. The name comes from Barker’s birth mother Shelley Welman, who set in motion a karmic destiny for Barker by giving her up for adoption.

"I was repurposed in a way," says Barker on the Welman website.

Today, the Welman Project founders are focused on repurposing items thrown out by businesses and event organizers. Whether it's a factory, office, retailer or arts space, they take a look at what is being disposed of regularly and figure out what they can take for reuse.

This includes things like leftover building materials, office supplies, factory remnants, misprints and outdated samples. 

Willis said companies also call when they're redecorating the office, cleaning out a closet, or changing their branding. The Welman Project takes the old furnishings or outdated letterhead. 

With events, the company arrives at cleanup and takes items such as signage, leftover swag and decor. 

“It saves the event planners from having to deal with disposal or storage, and gets them out of the venue a bit faster,” Willis said.
Once the material is secured for reuse, the ladies repurpose the items in a classroom, delivered at no cost to the educators. 

Welman Project“This enables the businesses we work with to not only reduce waste, but also contribute to solving another huge problem, and that's lack of resources in schools,” Willis explained. “Currently, 77 percent of classroom supplies are purchased by teachers with their own money. Our goal is to provide reusable or leftover materials that can replace items they would otherwise be buying themselves or going without. If an item just doesn't belong in a school, we have a number of local nonprofits we're able to give to as well.”
Most of the work The Welman Project does is based in the Fort Worth ISD schools, but they do work with other school districts too.

Southwestern Services donated 375 panels of melamine that weighed 1,950 lbs, saving a literal ton from a landfill.

“We're dedicated to providing a quality service to our teachers, and work with each of them individually to provide for their specific needs, whether ongoing or project based,” Willis said. “Due to the time devoted to each teacher, and the expense of travel for deliveries, we try not to stretch beyond where we can be most effective. That being said, we did recently deliver a donated piano to a high school in Grand Prairie.”
Most projects are simple, like using the other side of an outdated sign or banner as an art canvas, misprinted T-shirts for weaving projects or surplus tiles for a mosaic. They have made a patchwork curtain for the stage at an after-school program and provided tiny home building supplies for middle school students. Old bicycle inner tubes are being used in place of expensive resistance bands to help kids with ADD stay focused at their desks.

“A lot of things we get can actually still be used as what they are, companies just don't have the time or resources to find the right place to take them,” Willis said. “Professional theater sets can be placed on a high school stage, carpet squares are perfect in a reading corner and surplus office supplies are always needed in a classroom. We're really the middle man, taking things from companies who want to give back to the community and delivering them to teachers along with guidance in how to use them.” 

Still a small organization, Willis said it is her, Barker and a couple of dedicated volunteers along with a small but mighty board of directors.

“The amount of material going into our landfills every day is appalling, especially when so much of it hasn't reached the end of its capacity for use,” Willis said. “Recycling is important, but only solves a small part of the issue, and comes with its own negative environmental effects. Reuse is a low-cost, easy, and effective way to reduce waste output and it also happens to be a lot of fun.”

The nonprofit’s founders have big dreams for the future, but said they are working to build a solid foundation first.

“If you're interested in getting involved, we'd love to have you,” Willis said. “We're especially looking for artists, educators, crafters, waste management experts and anyone who holds onto things because you know you'll find a use for it someday.”

To make a donation or inquire about materials, visit The Welman Project website.

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