Our American Dream: Mary Cantu, Turning Trash into Treasures in the Hands of Budding Artists

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Mary Elizabeth Cantu doesn’t believe in throwing anything away, and because of this she’s probably helped create a small tribe of future Picasso’s, Monet’s, Kahlo’s and Rivera’s. Her voluntary efforts to give art teachers in San Antonio, Texas, schools, the raw materials they need has made her a rock star with grateful teachers, their excited art students and a thrilled number of parents.

After receiving her master’s degree in art education from the University Texas at Austin, Cantu moved back to her hometown of San Antonio to teach. But within a couple of years, she lost her job after the Texas education budget was slashed significantly.

She says she decided to do what she loved—support the arts and local schools, even if she had to do it on a volunteer basis. So, in 2010, she launched the non-profit arts organization called Spare PARTS.  

“It works like this: I dedicate my time all year (Cantu holds a part-time job as a college art history professor), making connections with various organizations. These companies donate free supplies. This is stuff they would otherwise dump," Cantu said. "But many of these things can absolutely be used for art projects." 

Cantu and volunteers then distribute the goods to needy schools in August before the school year begins.

There is never a short supply of phone calls from schools. 

"The supplies are completely free of charge to any school or teacher who requests them and I don’t turn anyone away—even private schools. But we do try to give first to the schools most in need,” Cantu said.

The art supplies run the gamut and fall into four basic categories:

1. Home Depot-like things—Tiles, fabric and used tools.

2. Art supplies—High-end paintbrushes, dried-out markers (which Cantu says can be submerged in water and turned into watercolor paints) and even African musical instruments.

3. Office supplies—Binders, post-it notes, staplers and paper.

4. Flea-market-like items—Old records, bottle caps or even a stack of cowboy hats.

Cantu believes it’s not just about money but sustainability. 

“Last year, I brought a teacher a large donation of expensive art supplies, and when I arrived I found her up to her ears in grades," she said. "She had 400 elementary kids to supply grades to; every kid in the school had an arts class...and not even in a proper classroom, and every one of those kids had to get a grade from her. Can you imagine?”

As a former public school student herself, and the daughter of a Mexican American father, she says she feels honored to help kids who came from where she came from. About 90 percent of the kids she helps are minority and under-privileged. It’s the reason, she says, she came back to San Antonio from Mount Holyoke College in Boston after under-grad – she wanted to give back. Cantu’s mom is a retired educator.  

As for the future of Cantu’s organization, she’s currently working to partner Spare PARTS with the city of San Antonio’s Waste Management department. At the moment the department only focuses its efforts on recycling materials, but she’s hoping they’ll incorporate re-use as well. 

She’d also like to see classes for teachers to show them how to use the materials.

“The reality is we should all be working toward reusing," Cantu says. "It’s an honor for me to give in this way. It’s my gift to the city of San Antonio.”

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Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.