Anonymous strangers help schoolteachers buy much-needed supplies

Laura Ingle reports on crowdfunding effort


Third grade teacher Jason Bui had to spend $200 of his own money just to get his students started this September.

"You used to get some pencils, maybe some glue sticks, some construction paper," said the teacher at Philadelphia's S. Weir Mitchell Elementary. "I got zero this year."

In West Haven, Conn., fifth grade teacher Donna Pitts was better off when school started at the May V. Carrigan Intermediate School -- but not by much.

"Usually the district provides $100 to $150 for supplies. Some years it is less, some years it might be a little more," Pitts said. "But for the most part that buys folders, pencils, crayons, basics. It doesn't go as far as the creative mind of a teacher would go."

According to the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers spend nearly $1,000 of their own money, per year, on various items needed for the classroom. They buy extra educational games, books and often basic supplies for students whose parents can't afford them.

However, teachers across the country are starting to keep more of their hard-earned money, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

"I can't even begin to describe how much better off my classroom isbased on what I've gained from DonorsChoose." Pitts said.

Thousands of teachers across the country, including Pitts and Bui,have discovered, a website where teachers createproject lists for items they need and donors, usually anonymous, pay for them.

"A lot of the classroom project requests on showschool systems that are falling short and not doing right by theirstudents and budget cuts are exacerbating that," said DonorsChoose.orgCEO Charles Best. "We see teachers requesting materials that you can'timagine any classroom going without."

Best, a former high school teacher in the Bronx, started the websitein 2000 after urging his colleagues to list their needs online. Ittook off after Best told a little white lie about a mysterious benefactor.

"I donated anonymously to my colleagues' projects. Because mycolleagues didn't know that it was me, they thought that the websiteactually worked and that there were all these donors just waiting onthe site, hoping to fulfill teachers classroom dreams," Best confessed.

"That rumor spread across the Bronx. Teachers startedposting hundreds of projects, projects that needed a whole lot more moneythan what I could afford ... and we were off."

Since the year 2000, has raised more than $190million dollars through a mix of private donors and corporate sponsorships.

Cities across the country are following that lead. Last month,Philadelphia launched the "Philadelphia Education Supplies Fund," amulti-year fundraising effort to provide additional money to alldistrict-managed schools for supplemental classroom supplies. Chicagohas a similar program.

Charles Best would like to see programs like that succeed. "We wouldlove to be put out of business when it comes to the 50 percent ofprojects on our site which request really basic materials like booksand dictionaries and paintbrushes," he said. "But, we see a continuedrole for enabling teachers to innovate, projects thatgo beyond the mandated curriculum, projects that bring learning to life."

Teachers like Jason Bui and Donna Pitts would like that, too. But ifnot, they'll dip back into their own pockets.

"We don't go into it for the money," Pitts said. "We go into it tomake a difference. If you can make a difference in a child's life,then you know that you've done your job."