Waste is a terrible thing to waste

A 5-year-old follows her mother into the store. Stopping quickly, she sweeps her large brown eyes across barrels of pieces of picture frames, laundry detergent bottle caps and tile samples. She surveys a wall covered in other children’s creations, trying to take in every inch of the colorful, cluttered mess. To her, this is a rich treasure chest. To the casual observer, it’s all garbage.

Arts & Scraps, a nonprofit business at 17820 E. Warren, occupies a small red brick building on Detroit’s east side. More than 80 businesses, some of them far-flung, donate leftover industrial waste to this organization. Without Arts & Scraps, the materials would end up in a landfill or incinerator. With Arts & Scraps, 26 tons of garbage is saved annually. Although its inventory consists of items ranging from used blinds to film containers, the nonprofit still managed to rake in more than $140,000 last year, its highest-grossing year to date.

With the help of two friends, Peg Upmeyer, director of Arts & Scraps, launched the organization from the basement of a tiny Detroit church in 1988. All three had been teachers and knew of the difficulty finding reasonably priced art materials for their students. The mission of Arts & Scraps became clear: to bring inexpensive art materials into inner-city schools.

“We saw that people working with kids needed resources,” Upmeyer says. “Through volunteer organizations we had worked with, we saw how scarce the resources were for people who were living in areas with limited means ... This is a really rich industrial area, so there were a lot of good things being thrown away.”

Arts & Scraps gets donations from all types of businesses. There’s Soyad Brothers Textiles in Warren, a sock company that donates material, a company that makes vinyl signs, tile producers and automobile companies, to name a few.

“They’re supporting the community by doing what they do,” Upmeyer says. “And what they’re doing is a sizable contribution. They have to separate the stuff. It’s not effortless on their part.”

What do kids make out of the scraps? Insects. Using foam pads with a sticky backing originally found beneath dashboards, they create ladybugs, bumblebees and caterpillars. They can make purses out of old video covers, spaceships out of wallpaper material and decorate anything with colored sand.

Upmeyer says the shop is also popular among restaurateurs and adults who want to redecorate on the cheap. Most come in and head straight to the tile rack, where they can break their own to fit whatever shape or size they need.

The store is open three days a week. A paper grocery bag filled with anything in the store costs $5.50. Need to supply a big group? Arts & Scraps offers kits that include enough materials for 25 children’s projects.

“In a number of ways, we ladder our fees and services, so if someone wants to buy the kit already done, they pick up the box, take it back and there’s no thought to it,” Upmeyer says. “The kids do all the creating.”

Once Upmeyer found local businesses willing to donate scraps, she and her two collaborators removed the seats from their minivans and drove to each contributor, collecting the refuse. It was tedious work, but now, 14 years later, the organization has matured into a huge community operation.

She employs 10 people and directs more than 200 more who are involved as volunteers. Everyone from mentally handicapped students to Ford Motor Co. executives donates time to make life more interesting for kids, Upmeyer says.

Ford has long encouraged its salaried employees to volunteer two days per year for community service. When Elizabeth McGlinch, Ford’s lead Web developer, saw what Arts & Scraps does for children, she knew her group had to give this a try.

Ford workers traveled to Arts & Scraps’ warehouse on Harper, a few minutes west of the Arts & Scraps store on Warren. The Ford volunteers separated worthy art materials from real garbage and assembled kits for sale in the store.

McGlinch says, “You get to be a kid for a little bit. And it’s for children. That was the key. You really see that’s what you’re here for — and that this is really making a difference out there.”

Upmeyer says her organization appeals to adults and kids alike.

Most instructors who lead arts projects in classes and at birthday parties have teaching experience, Upmeyer says, although no degree is required.

“People here have the ability to think like a child, but to have a sense of play is really important, and that’s what our people have more than degrees,” she says. “When we go out and do events, rarely does a child under 6 get to make their own project. Their parents, who rarely play, start it — and it’s so intriguing.

“It teaches them concentration,” Upmeyer says. “It gets the kids to open up, and provides them with different types of experiences. But most of all, it gives them a place where somebody knows them, and where they are very special.”

Andrea Leptinsky is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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