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CURRENT ISSUE:  December 12, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 21Oakland, CA

Turning trash into treasure

What on earth can a thrift store do with stacks upon stacks of outmoded encyclopedias, antiquated Reader’s Digest condensed books, old Clue and Monopoly Game boards missing their dice, and Colonel Mustard plastic icons?

The obvious solution is to cart the donations to the nearest recycling center, but until recently the Alameda County District Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which operates several thrift stores, did not have an environmental sustainability program in place.

This was a big worry for Rebecca Jewell, the district council’s volunteer program manager and an ardent ecologist.

She couldn’t bear to think about so many wonderful items, especially books, game boards and old picture frames, ending up in landfills.
Besides, Reader’s Digest anthologies have such lovely blue marble covers, worth preserving and admiring, said Jewell, who describes herself as having “a crafty little bent.”

She believed that many of these donations could be transformed into “something else” that could be sold in the thrift shops. So she whipped out her sewing machine, grabbed her hot glue gun and began creating.

Soon she had a couple of shelves filled with stylish, on-the-town evening purses, sturdy, colorful file folders, children’s journals, gift bags trimmed with perky white bows, and earring holders, all of them incorporating book covers or picture frames as part of the design.

She presented her creations to the council’s executive director, Philip Arca, with a proposal that the organization begin turning its trash into treasures, not only to help the environment, but to generate income as well. There could be a third bonus, she suggested.

Cash-strapped clients who come to the Society for help, especially participants at the Visitation Center in Oakland, could be trained as in-house crafts persons, offering them a way to learn a new skill and to earn money.

To test the viability of Jewell’s proposal, Arca called upon Brown-Vence and Associates, a waste management company in San Francisco, for advice. They willingly did a pro bono audit. Their findings were
astounding, said Christine Comella, the district council’s marketing director.

|“Forty percent of St. Vincent de Paul donations cannot be resold—that’s 1900 tons of leftovers every year,” she said.

Brown-Vence recommended that the Society begin turning over its unusables to recycling companies. And they gave Rebecca Jewell’s plan for her Functional Found Art project an A-plus.

To finance Jewell’s program, Comella successfully applied for two grants — $43,000 from the StopWaste partnership program of Alameda Waste Management and $20,000 from the Altamont Educational Advisory Board.

The money pays the salaries of five women who’ve been hired to work four hours each Wednesday and Friday at the new Functional Found Art Workshop located behind the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room. The grants also help to buy the extra crafts supplies needed for completing their projects.

The women are clients of the Visitation Center, where they come to do laundry, get children’s clothing, or to take ESL classes, said Sister Marion Bill, Center manager. They’ve been sewing, cutting, and gluing for the past few weeks, getting their creations ready for Christmas shoppers.

Suzanne Jastrumske is thrilled with her new job. It came as a complete surprise, she said. As part of her outpatient drug rehab recovery program, she went to the Visitation Center to volunteer.

“My first day there, Sister Marion asked me if I could use a sewing machine. When I said ‘yes’ she hired me for this program.”

A few weeks into the work, Jastrumske said she has evolved as “our best cutter, even though I can only see out of one eye.” She receives some disability payments, and the extra salary makes life a little easier for her and her daughter.

Julia Arroyo is another pleased worker. She was hired when she brought her mother to Visitation Center for ESL classes. “I like it here. I never had learned to sew before, but now I’m making purses,” beamed Arroyo.

Lydia Resuleo, an ESL student, said the Found Art Functional Workshop is helping ease the financial strain she has been under since she came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 1999. She also works as a baby sitter.

The women’s creations are for sale at the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store at Park and Lincoln Streets in Alameda. Store hours are 9:30 a..m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Rebecca Jewell hopes the program will become self-supporting.

The District’s over-all recycling effort is already beginning to save money, said Comella.

“Our recycling will bring in $63,000 for this fiscal year.” In addition, their waste management bill has plummeted from $130,000 per year to $80,000. Those are pretty hefty Christmas gifts for the District, with Earth as a co-equal beneficiary.

Now that her first two recycling projects are off the ground, Jewell is working on another idea: recyclable biodegradable coffee cups and eating utensils for the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room. “They’re made from cornstarch and potatoes,” she said, bringing out samples she picked up at a recent Green Festival in San Francisco.

The creative hands of a Found Art Functional Workshop complete a child's journal, made from the covers of a children's book.

Julia Arroyo (left) consults with program coordinator Rebecca Jewell about a piece of fabric she is turning into a purse.

Lillie Haskin proudly displays some of the gift bags she has made from discarded book covers, like those from Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.


Lidia Resuleo concentrates on making the inside of a scrapbook, one of many items that will be sold to support the recycle program.



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