Free classroom cache gives teachers a hand

Published April 17, 2005

When schoolteachers walk into this warehouse full of classroom supplies, they get as excited as kids in a candy store.

They exclaim over the piles of pencils, boxes of tissues, stacks of notebooks and reams of paper. They love the multicolored felt squares. And they get positively giddy over the bottles of sanitizing hand gel.

But the best part of the trip is this: Everything is free.

"It was like, "Wow, someone cares,' " said teacher Dorothy Griffin after her recent shopping spree at the warehouse. "It was very morale boosting."

Griffin, a PE teacher at Lakewood Elementary School, is one of scores of teachers from 19 of Pinellas County's neediest public schools who have been shopping this school year at a warehouse loaded with school supplies.

The giveaway was started by A Gift For Teaching of Pinellas, a nonprofit organization that tries to provide classroom supplies for students who can't afford to buy them. It was organized by Alice Carter, a veteran educator who knows firsthand how hard it is for teachers to get classroom materials. Like most teachers, she has taken plenty of money out of her own pocket.

Each school year, teachers spend $500 to $2,000 of their own money for supplies, she said.

"Unfortunately with budget cuts, fewer dollars are being spent on classroom supplies," Carter said. "It's a national trend." Carter first met with A Gift For Teaching organizers in Orlando, where the group started in 1998. A second store opened in Hillsborough County in 2002.

Last year, Carter opened the third in a St. Petersburg warehouse that had been unoccupied for years. All three warehouses operate separately, but they share the mission of placing supplies in schools.

A Gift For Teaching has given away almost $70,000 in goods to Pinellas County teachers since opening in October. The supplies are donated by local businesses. More unusual gifts include a recent estate donation of four pallets of new craft supplies.

"New donors are popping out of the woodwork," said Jeff Tomeo, who runs the free store.

What isn't donated is bought by A Gift For Teaching, which holds fundraising events and also receives cash donations. It is hosting a fundraising dinner April 25.

"We want to make sure we never run out of basic items," Tomeo said. High demand items include dry erase markers and sanitizing gel. For now, he buys them at office supply stories. While donations have steadily increased since October, finding volunteers has been more challenging.

Since opening, 600 volunteer hours have been logged. Three volunteers come regularly, but more are needed. United Way works every first Saturday. Students from Gibbs High School are painting murals on the warehouse walls.

Andrea Goode, who graduated from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has volunteered since September. Goode is one of 12 students helping the group create marketing plans.

"The good part about it is when you see how excited the teachers are. They are so thankful," she said. "It should be the other way around. We should be thankful for them."

Tomeo or Carter visit each school to give teachers the guidelines: Shop on your designated day. Select 25 items. Sign a release form that says supplies are the property of the classroom.

The teachers who are allowed to shop are from schools with high percentages of students in the free- or reduced-price lunch program. About 41 percent of Pinellas students - 50,000 children - qualify for the program.

"If they can't participate in buying their lunch, how in the world would they buy school supplies?" Carter said.

Teachers are phoning the organization to learn how they can get supplies. For now, A Gift For Teaching can't serve all 145 schools in Pinellas, but teachers who will volunteer for three hours are entitled to a shopping trip.

The free classroom supplies have meant a lot to teacher Lynda Hodge this year.

"I've always worked in high-poverty schools," she said. "I've spent a lot of money over the years" - about $1,000 out of her own pocket each year.

Hodge teaches at Lakewood Elementary, which is in an area where the average income is $27,000, compared to almost $57,000 in the rest of the county.

Griffin, the PE teacher, nabbed the top prize on her first visit - hand sanitizing gel.

"So many kids come to school with open cuts and infections," she said. "Hand sanitizer is the best thing. I could have used 10."

Lorene Roberson is a reporter for the Neighborhood News Bureau, a program of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.


A Gift For Teaching of Pinellas will host a fundraiser and dinner April 25 at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center, 12600 Roosevelt Blvd. Tickets are $50. Call (727) 576-2199 by Tuesday.