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Super Crayons are recycling at its best

Kay McKeen with her Super Crayons

Kay McKeen with her Super Crayons

My parents were born during The Great Depression, so nothing—and I mean nothing—was ever wasted in our household. Seemingly empty ketchup bottles were rinsed with vinegar so that every drop could be consumed. Every jar was washed and saved under the kitchen sink until we found another use for it as a bug catcher or a container for bacon grease. Clothes were repaired and passed down to the next kid, then repaired some more and passed down again. And, broken crayons were tossed into an old shoebox and used until they wore away.

While at the time my parents’ motivation was primarily economical, if they were alive today they would be labeled as environmentalists, or recyclers, or at the very least, some of the “good guys” who are fighting to save the planet.

I’ve always been proud that their resourceful values had rubbed off on me. These values are the reason behind my inability to throw away a twist-tie, rubber band, or length of string for fear that I may need to fasten something one day. However, while I have been squirreling away small, reusable treasures, Kay McKeen and her recycling efforts have been making a difference to DuPage county and to the world.

The journey for McKeen started in 1990 when she founded a nonprofit organization, which is now known as S.C.A.R.C.E. (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education). At the time, she had developed two programs about the benefits of recycling and composting, and began sharing her knowledge through lectures in the DuPage county school system. McKeen noticed that many of the schools she was visiting had old textbooks collecting dust in storage; whenever the schools needed more space, they’d throw these textbooks away. In other words, perfectly good textbooks were ending up in landfills.

McKeen realized that what may be one school’s trash could be another school’s treasure. In 1991, she developed the Book Rescue Center, which provided a place for schools to donated their surplus books, and in turn allowed other schools to get the books they needed for free. Since then, McKeen has rescued over three million books.

While textbooks still dominate S.C.A.R.C.E.’s inventory, the foundation collects and finds new uses for everything imaginable. Within their walls, you will find gently used guitars and French horns that are waiting to be matched with needy children who want to learn how to play. Surplus yarn is collected and donated to an organization that knits caps for cancer patients. Old buttons, yards of fabric, and sewing machines are donated to international organizations that help impoverished woman learn a skill.

All of their inventory is donated by schools, businesses, recycling events, and individuals. “We have people call us and say, ‘You are the sixth place I’ve called. Will you accept [fill in the blank] for recycling?’” explains McKeen. “We want to be the first place you call. We will take your recyclables and we will get them into the right hands.”

For example, S.C.A.R.C.E. is completing their annual Gym Shoe Rescue, where people can donate their old gym shoes instead of throwing them away. The volunteers separate the gently used shoes and donate them to people in need; the worn shoes are sent to the shoe manufacturer Nike for recycling.

“Nike pays for the shipping back to their plant,” explains McKeen. “There, they slice each shoe horizontally into three parts and grind them down to create materials that will be used in playground surfaces, carpet padding, and insulation.”

McKeen in proud of her efforts, “In 2011, we donated 4,000 pairs of shoes to charity for reuse, and sent Nike 14,500 shoes for recycling.”

While the Gym Shoe Rescue does earn McKeen bragging rights, arguably another S.C.A.R.C.E. program reigns supreme in my book: the Super Crayon program.

“Crayons are a petroleum product—a precious commodity—and we want to keep them out of landfills,” explains McKeen.

The Super Crayon program starts with volunteers sorting the donated crayons by color. If the crayon is in good condition, it takes a spin in an official crayon sharpener that recreates the trademark shape. “We then put one of each color in a recycled Altoid tin, and teachers can come in and take as many set of crayons as they need for their class.”

If the crayon is in bad condition, the label is peeled off and those crayons are melted and molded into Super Crayons for special-needs kids.

“We have three shapes of Super Crayons,” explains McKeen. “The first is an oversized crayon for kids who need to use two hands. For the second crayon, we use a witch’s finger mold that creates a curved shape for kids who need more surface to grip. And the third shape fits in the palm of a child’s hand, for kids who need to grip the crayon with their fist.

“We also make fun shapes for kids in the hospital,” McKeen said as she held up a football-shaped crayon that’s sporting the swirled blue and orange colors of the Bears. “It stinks being sick, so hopefully these crayons bring them some joy.”

As you can imagine, all of this great work is dependent upon a lot of dedicated volunteers. “If someone wants to volunteer as little as an hour a month, we can use them,” said McKeen. “We need help washing the Altoid tins. Crayons need to be sorted, peeled, and melted. Or, we can always use help restocking the shelves with textbooks, or even organizing the craft supply room.

“Even if a person was willing to volunteer off-site and collect Altoid tins, that would be a big help,” said McKeen.

If you want to learn more about S.C.A.R.C.E., visit their web site at http://www.scarceecoed.org. Or, you can always drop by their location with a donation at 799 Roosevelt Road (Building 2, Suite 108) in Glen Ellyn (just off of Nicole Way).

Also, if you are a teacher or a representative from a school, library, historical society, hospital, or nonprofit organization, you are welcome to visit S.C.A.R.C.E. and take anything from their inventory for no charge. “We always have binders, hanging files, craft supplies, games, and books on hand for organizations and teachers who need them”.

As for me, I am digging out the old crayon-filled shoebox from my parents’ house and bringing it to S.C.A.R.C.E. I had saved them for the memories, but now I am ready to let them go. They will now become part of a new memory when a lucky kid takes possession of her first Super Crayon.

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