How do you keep teachers from having to buy supplies with their own money? Open a free store.

You've probably heard of backpack drives, where volunteers pack bags of school supplies for kids in need.

Photo by Morgan/Flickr.


Maybe you've even helped out with one, either by donating supplies or by helping to pass out the finished packages. If so, bravo! These drives are great, and they really do help so many kids.

But it might surprise you to know that a lot of these materials never make it to the classroom.

They can either get lost in the shuffle (buried in drawers somewhere before the school year starts) or discarded because they aren't really needed (watercolor paints for a third-grader who's not taking art, for example). No one is maliciously hoarding school supplies, but you know, things happen, and sometimes they don't get where they need to go.

Not to mention, these backpack drives usually happen at the beginning of the year. When supplies start to get low around winter break, there's no surplus to fall back on.

In any case, I think we all know who usually ends up paying the price: the teachers.

Project Teacher, in Wichita, Kansas, is taking a different approach to stocking students and classrooms for the school year.

Did you know that public school educators spent $1.6 billion of their own money on classroom supplies during the 2012 school year? That's almost $500 per teacher out of their own paychecks, which usually aren't all that deep to begin with.

So, for anyone keeping score at home, teachers get paid crap, get criticized when they send home lengthy supply lists, and wind up having to dip into their own cash to make up the difference. Oh, and the well-intentioned donation drives designed to help connect students with classroom tools often don't work as well as they should.

If only there were, like, a magical free store where teachers could go and get exactly what they need for their classroom without spending a dime or dealing with any red tape.

That's exactly the vision behind Project Teacher.

Project Teacher is empowering educators to keep their classrooms equipped, not just at the beginning of the year, but all year long.

And they're doing it for free.

A couple of teachers shop at the Project Teacher free store. Photo by Ginger Skillen Photography.

Terry Johnson, the director of Project Teacher and whose wife is an educator, told Upworthy he got the idea for a free supply store for teachers after seeing a story about a similar program in Portland.

Teachers in the Wichita area can make an appointment to come in and get exactly what they need for their classrooms – no guesswork or one-size-fits-all donation lists – all courtesy of corporate donations, hand me downs, and local fundraisers.

School supplies, Terry says, are so individually tailored by school, grade, and teacher, that it makes the most sense to put resources directly in the hands of educators.

"Every little bit helps, but the teachers know exactly what the classroom needs," he said.

Not all fifth-graders need the exact same supplies. That's why this free store makes so much sense. Photo by Ginger Skillen Photography.

This is about much more than just making sure kids have markers and Kleenex.

Terry told me that about half of teachers will leave the profession sometime in their first three years. Others say it happens sometime in the first five.

Either way, imagine the effect that has on kids, especially the ones in lower-income areas, when the young, passionate, energetic teachers they desperately need are bailing on the profession because they can't afford it anymore.

"If a kid can go through all 12 years of education and have an amazing experience, there's a really good chance that the cycle of poverty in their family could break," Terry told me.

"If we can equip teachers to enjoy their job, so that they're excited about it, that rubs off on the students. It gives us an opportunity to really change the community."

He's right. Teachers really are heroes. And the more we support and champion them, the better things are going to be for our kids.

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