On the Move
By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photos by Ron Jenkins
The Welman Project grows along with educators’ need for free school supplies
Teachers look to The Welman Project for free materials — paper, pencils, art supplies — but sometimes the need is a greater one. Meeting such needs during the pandemic has been a challenge for Vanessa Barker and Taylor Willis, founders of the Fort Worth nonprofit, which collects surplus goods and landfill-destined castoffs for use in classrooms.
But they continue to experience a synchronicity that encourages and delights them five years after opening their doors. A recent example: Teachers handling both in-person and virtual students realized that using a second monitor with their laptop would allow them to see students on screen while also sharing content. As monitor requests accumulated, the nonprofit soon heard from One Stop Printing in Fort Worth, which had some 50 computer monitors to rehome. “Every single time, someone pinch hits and comes in and delivers exactly what our teachers need,” says Barker.
Demand continues to be high. “The biggest shift has been helping teachers provide for their students’ learning at home with take-home kits of basic supplies and creative supplies, so they’re still getting to do hands-on activities,” says Willis. The Welman Project and its volunteers have assembled hundreds of such kits, dropping them off to teachers, who then drop them off to kids’ doorsteps. For students attending school in-person, there are no more shared classroom sets of supplies — each child needs their own. The Welman Project has been able to help with that, too.
Since warehouse shopping at the nonprofit has been limited to one teacher at a time by appointment, the team used its renovated school bus, lovingly called “Barb,” to serve 38 teachers in one busy afternoon. W.M. Green Elementary School teacher Kara Henderson reached out to TWP to find materials for fellow teachers. Barker and Willis were overflowing with books but not supplies. Then they got an out-of-the-blue call from Neighborhood Needs Fort Worth saying they had enough new school supplies to fill a bus. “I’m talking hundreds of packs of Expo dry-erase markers, thousands of pencils — the good kind of pencils!” says Barker. “It was really fortuitous.” The Welman Project gave away $4,554 worth of supplies in 30 minutes that day. “Great things happen in this community,” says Willis.
TWP is now expanding to a more central location in Fort Worth, doubling its square footage with a 5,200-square-foot multipurpose building that was once a T-shirt screen-printing business. A bonus: it has heat and air conditioning.
The building is getting a much-needed fresh coat of paint, with plans for a colorful, inspiring mural on one side. Another bonus? It’s across the street from Swiss Pastry Shop. Mid-move, they paused their work briefly to pick up a couple celebratory cupcakes.
To secure their organization’s future — it’s supported by grants, donations and volunteers — Barker and Willis are currently participating in United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator program, which matches them with mentors from the local business community, helping them to set and meet milestones in building The Welman Project. Two additional team members, Steven Alford and Jasmine Stoughton, now help run daily operations. While they’ve come a long way in five years, The Welman Project founders are still humbled and awed at how spontaneously the community meets educators’ needs and how diligently teachers work to help students thrive, even in profoundly challenging circumstances.
“Time and time again, the community shows up, and that’s why we’re 5 years old; it’s a giant village of business leaders, mentors, teachers, volunteers and our tiny staff,” says Barker. Adds Willis, “The way teachers have stepped up, completely changed