Sunday, February 22, 1998
A free store for teachers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Shoppers. Careful shoppers move down the aisles, slowly filling carts. No lookers here, just customers.

The warehouse in Bond Hill is like an office supply store. No, make that a school supply store. It even has the aroma. It smells like crayons. And maybe a whiff of white paste, the kind I used to eat in the first grade when the teacher wasn't looking - until Philip Gerstner told me it was made from the hooves of horses.

Crayons, glue, folders, spiral notebooks, poster board. Then there are the big-ticket items, computers and printers and typewriters. Everything but a cash register.

It's all free.

The shoppers are teachers, bless 'em, on their own time picking up supplies for their classrooms, their kids. They used to pay for stuff like this themselves. Now, all they have to do is make sure the donor gets a thank-you note.

Most come here every week, so they won't miss anything. ''We're like Big Lots,'' says Shannon Carter, president of this place, called Crayons to Computers. ''You just never know what will be in the truck.''

Good guys, good business

The trucks arrive filled with computer keyboards, pencils, pens, books, folders, carpet samples, athletic supporters, envelopes - more than a million dollars worth during the first year. Contributors get to take a tax deduction, not to mention the satisfaction of being a good guy.

About a hundred schools meet eligibility requirements, based on the national poverty index. Crayons to Computers serves some of the poorest kids from the neediest schools.

Sister Judy Crooker of Corryville Catholic Elementary School picked up plush bears, slightly irregular, as prizes to reward extra effort, good behavior, attendance.

''These bears were meant for us,'' a first-grader told her. ''They must have known we would love them even if they only have one eye.''

Rodney Hughes, a science teacher from Crest Hills Middle School in Roselawn, hit the jackpot. ''I found an ionizer,'' he says, ''to put next to one of my kids with allergies.''

Science class. Smelly experiments, the aroma of rotten eggs. ''That's why I'm always a good customer for their potpourri,'' Mr. Hughes says.

Geoff Hoebbel, who teaches fifth and sixth graders at Burton Elementary School in Avondale, says he was determined to improve attendance. Calendars, shiny rulers, magnets, stickers. An incentive program. ''My attendance went up. Overnight. Drastically. And stayed.''

What took so long?

Why, I wondered, haven't we done this before? Everything is right about it. It's the free enterprise system. With an accent on the free and the enterprise. This store interrupts the flow of scrap to the landfill. It gives good teachers the tools they need to do the job, gives kids the basics - and some extras.

The answer may be as simple as the trim woman bustling around the warehouse, straightening piles of notebooks, a smudge of dust on her sleeve. Shannon Carter, who has sold shoes and antiques, who is beautifully dressed, immaculately groomed and impeccably connected, took an idea and made it a cause.

''My kids say I found Jesus in the warehouse,'' she says, screwing up her face into an unself-conscious grin. She painted walls and scrubbed floors, charmed her friends and squeezed her contacts. She organized and recruited, treating this charity with businesslike respect.

A good idea is never enough. Somebody has to make it happen. That would be Shannon. Somebody has to make it work. That would be Rodney and Geoff and Judy.

And they never forget what this little business really produces: a kid who doesn't have to beg for a pencil and paper.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.