Sustainable Spotlight

Teachers’ Teammates

Raelyn Harman · Founder + Board President

Realyn Harman is the founder of Teachers’ Teammates, an all-volunteer organization built by individuals who recognize teachers must too often dig into their own wallets to meet their classrooms’ needs. This local nonprofit brings together resources to offer all teachers in Delaware County the opportunity to receive free and low-cost supplies for their classrooms.

You saw the inequities of school supplies in Delaware County classrooms, and you decided to change that. Was there a specific moment that drove you to create Teachers’ Teammates?

Given my background in social work, I’ve long been aware of the disparity in resources between communities and school districts. I detest waste, especially when I know people are struggling to meet a need in one community and could benefit from surplus resources from nearby neighbors. I learned about the Kids in Need Foundation and its affiliate teacher resource centers. I was astonished that there were none in SE Pennsylvania where the need is so great. It kept bothering me, and I kept thinking about what it would take. At some point I realized that I likely had the skills and experience to execute a plan to establish one in this area. I couldn’t get it off my mind, so I decided to do it with the support of my family and friends. My husband is from India—and is as saddened as I am about what gets wasted, knowing the needs of so many are so great.

How did the pandemic affect the start-up process of a brand new organization? Did it affect the teachers’ abilities to reuse supplies?

The original model would have established a storefront where teachers would shop in person. When we incorporated and received approval for our 501(c)(3) status, the pandemic was in full swing, so there was no point in implementing a face-to-face mode of distribution. Many teacher resource centers around the country were ramping up their online options for teachers due to the pandemic, so we decided to start Teachers’ Teammates with an online store. It hasn’t affected teachers’ ability to re-use supplies. We’ve always followed CDC protocols, and many of the donations we receive are brand new.

You were honored by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. The NSDAR applauded you for lifting the burden off teachers, while promoting recycling, repurposing, and reusing materials that would otherwise end up creating harmful gasses in landfills. Do you have any idea how much material you’ve rescued to be reused so far?

Someday I’d like to be able to report this total in pounds but our data is counted in retail cost savings. We’ve distributed goods valued at more than $720,000 since we opened our online store on 2/1/21.

What are the most needed items in classrooms?

Core supplies! We accept a wide range of goods to be repurposed in classrooms, but we never seem to have enough of the core supplies that teachers need for every student. This includes: notebooks (composition and single subject spiral/wide-ruled/college-ruled), crayons, washable and dry erase markers, highlighters, colored pencils, pencils, pencil top and wedge erasers, pencil sharpeners, glue sticks and glue bottles, blunt tip scissors, rulers, 2-pocket folders and filler paper. Most of these are consumable goods that need to be replenished by the 2nd semester.

Do you feel that your efforts are going beyond helping out teachers and are also planting seeds in the minds of children about reusing materials (as opposed to buying new stuff)?

I do think our efforts go beyond helping teachers and students. All teachers now have a place to donate their surplus supplies especially when they retire. I think we are an example to the students of how communities can share resources and not waste usable goods especially when they are needed by others in the wider community. The students who receive our supplies have a broader understanding about who cares about them. Where we’ve planted the most seeds is in the business community, and in organizations such as universities, that have become aware of how things they no longer need can be repurposed in a local school. Employees do not always make the decision of what gets thrown away, and the people who know about Teachers’ Teammates can suggest that they be donated instead of added to landfills. They look at their cast-offs with new eyes and can imagine how they can have a “second” life in classrooms, where resources are limited. It’s a win-win-win-win -win for teachers, students, businesses/organizations, the community, and the environment.

Volunteers are a big part of your mission. How many volunteers do you have? Are you looking for more?

Though we have hundreds of volunteers, I always say that we can never have too many. Managing a large volume of donations is labor intensive. They could easily be wasted if not kept organized and ready to fill teachers’ orders. Some of our volunteers upcycle donations (i.e. yarn is made into much needed hats and scarves for students, and notebooks are created out of odd size paper). We have volunteers working remotely making phone calls, collecting data, writing grants, creating documents, sorting and bundling donations, crocheting & knitting, assembling feminine hygiene kits, making repairs in the warehouse, delivering teachers’ orders when needed, and picking up donations. We have all ages and abilities contributing their time and talents, from preschoolers to octogenarians. The diversity among our volunteers has been one of our greatest strengths and has powered our astonishing growth in such a short period of time. Recruiting volunteers with the professional skills we need is an area where we could improve, such as finance & accounting; warehouse and/or inventory management.

Teachers’ Teammates has an enormous sustainability aspect; what are some sustainable actions you take in your personal life?

I like this question! I never thought of it as a whole before, and when I gave it thought, I surprised myself at how many ways our household chooses more sustainable options. Here goes: we compost, recycle per our township’s guidelines, recycle soft plastic on behalf of our church’s goal to recycle soft plastic in exchange for benches, we replaced our asphalt driveway with gravel so it would be permeable, we replaced our front lawn with native plants and wood chips, we installed solar panels for our home energy use, I drive a hybrid car. It was fun to make this list and I’ll stop there.

Are there any specific challenges the nonprofit faces on a daily basis?

We’ve outgrown an all-volunteer model. If we are to maintain the current trajectory of growth, we need a small core group of staff to serve as hubs for various key tasks ie. acquiring and managing donations; recruiting, training and supervising volunteers; building our network of partners, marketing and fundraising. We will always rely on volunteers to accomplish the bulk of the work that needs to get done. It’s been difficult to convince foundations/grantors/donors to fund staff positions. I think people see how much inventory we have and think we are in “great shape” and we are when it comes to in-kind donations but financial donations are needed to pay for costs such as the warehouse rent, utilities, software, marketing and staff. An organization or individual with a passion for education and/or sustainable solutions to inequalities and in the financial position to fund a staff position would be a great partnership and support.

Which part of your journey with Teachers Teammates are you most proud of?

I am very grateful and pleased that so many people have contributed to TT’s early success. People recognize the effectiveness of the model and most people once they learn about TT’s mission and what we are doing to achieve it, offer to contribute in some way. We’re building a Teachers’ Teammates community across every sector of society. That is very affirming of the notion I had to initiate this endeavor.

What does the organization look like in five years? Any long term goals?

Given the community’s overall positive response to our mission, I can easily envision growing TT to serve the surrounding counties including Philadelphia (and eventually the tri-state area beyond the 5 year mark😊). There is a need in many area schools and the resources are already available in the community – it’s a matter of getting them from point A to point B. Easier said than done but doable.