NOTE: Another version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2011 Florida Times-Union Mandarin Sun edition. The next Teacher Supply Depot giveaway is Thursday, September 8, 2011
Alice Gardner, a business analyst for Wells Fargo, stood behind a table in the coveted “limited” room of the Duval County Public Schools Teacher Supply Depot overseeing the distribution of clip-on boys’ ties.
Just a few feet away school board member Becki Couch was positioned near a barrel containing girls’ bracelets, offering the “limit 1 bag” deal to each passerby. Nearby, Donnie Horner, Mayor Alvin Brown’s newly selected education commissioner, greeted people with well wishes for the upcoming school year. Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals also made an appearance.
Engulfing them all was an excited throng of teachers who came to explore room after room full of books, office supplies and $4 million worth of donated materials of every description to see what treasures they could find.
It was a snapshot of the partnerships, sense of community and tradition that characterized the depot’s 16th annual Back to School Giveaway.
“It’s difficult times and teachers are going above and beyond by being here. The whole community wants to send a message of how much we appreciate their extra effort,” said Mandarin resident Chris Buckley, the depot’s longtime manager.
The giveaway offers a prime opportunity for Jacksonville’s educational stakeholders to contribute.
“This unique event brings together the best of volunteerism, philanthropy from the community and support from private sector organizations,” said Horner. “The Mayor’s mission is to engage, sponsor, partner and act with the schools and community. What a great example of all of those things, but especially action.”
That action began early for some: Von Easton, a K-12 special education teacher, was first in line at 4:10 a.m. Linda Edwards, a River City Science Academy kindergarten teacher, held the position last year; she had to settle for second, joining Easton at 4:30 and joking about being “dethroned.” Doors opened at 8:30.
Easton was hunting for motivational items for her students while Edwards was shelf shopping. They were among 600 educators ushered into the old Lackawanna Alternative Education Center by Beth Stansel. An Atlantic Beach Elementary gifted teacher and decade long depot volunteer, Stansel – bullhorn in hand and sporting a pith helmet – is a familiar sight to the event’s regulars.
She knew how long some of the teachers waited, so she used her bullhorn to shower them with words of encouragement and praise: “Not much longer now folks!” or “Look at all of these beautiful people, they’ve been out in the sun, they’re glowing!” and finally, “Lets go, go, go!” as she opened the doors.
Her enthusiasm is representative of the 100 volunteers that helped make the giveaway successful. Certainly none more so than Rachel Raneri, a long time volunteer whom Buckley nicknamed the “one-armed bandit” because she worked the entire week with a broken shoulder.
Eighty volunteers came from four businesses that are also regular donors: Bank of America, Citibank, State Farm and, like the “limited” room’s Alice Gardner, Wells Fargo.
“I appreciate what teachers do and wanted to give back,” said Gardner. “Without businesses donating, these teachers would have to buy stuff out of their own pockets,” she added, highlighting the economic challenges that schools face.
It’s a familiar challenge to Becki Couch, who taught for a decade before her election to the school board.
“I know how hard teachers work and how much this is needed in their classrooms,” said Couch. “Budgets are being slashed by the state and that makes it difficult to give money toward supplies; the depot helps teachers close that gap.”
Couch was reminded of her recent classroom days by a unique piece of her students’ artwork on display: A book partially illustrated by a “shark” crafted from a bra that originated in the depot’s so-christened “Maidenform” room. It was one of countless projects donated by teachers made from depot-acquired supplies.
“People donate everything imaginable and you can do some really creative stuff,” said Reta Russell-Houghton, the depot’s resident artist who oversees the “arts and crafts” room.
Russell-Houghton turns milk jugs into masks, magazine strips into bowls and paper rolls into totem poles or penguins.
“She’s like our angel of the arts and crafts,” said Kings Trail Elementary art teacher Jessie Bruile. “She has given me many very awesome tried and true number one lessons!”
Virgi Mills, a pre-kindergarten deaf and hard of hearing teacher at Waterleaf Elementary, showed her appreciation of Russell-Houghton’s arts and crafts room by leaving with an armful of vinyl floor covering, cardboard, picture frames, plastic tubes and various fabrics.
“I saved my husband $200 today,” she said with a wink.
Stephanie Jones, a pre-school handicapped teacher at Love Grove Elementary, said she also made her husband happy with her visit.
“It used to be that with pre-school handicapped we had a grant to help us out. But that changed five years ago. Plus the schools have been slashing their supply budgets. So I’ve been spending about $500 a year of my own money.”
It’s a familiar refrain for Buckley, who has heard of teachers saving upward of $2,000 a year by taking advantage of the back to school event as well as the depot’s monthly giveaways.
But for her, it goes far beyond just the savings.
“For the community to be able to get together in one spot and to be able to volunteer and really touch every single school out there is just a wonderful asset.”
Teacher Supply Depot 2011-2012 monthly giveaway schedule:
All days 3 – 6 p.m. on either the first or second Thursday of the month:
Teacher Supply Depot by the numbers:
- 16 years: How long the depot has held its Back to School Giveaway
- September 1996: When the depot first opened
- 1,400: Number of donors
- $40 million: Amount of supplies received
- 141: Giveaway days held
- 40,500+: Number of teacher, principal and PTA president visits logged
- 3: Locations that have housed the depot; Southside Grammar School (1996-2000), John Gorrie Middle School (2000-2008) and Lackawanna Elementary/ Alternative Education Center (2008-present)
- 2004-2008: Only years that Chris Buckley did not manage the depot