by Sheila Morovati
My 3-year-old daughter seemed to only eat well when we went to her favorite restaurant so as a new mother, I kept going back. It was during those lunches out that I would notice a very strange behavior. Each kid diner would receive a free, brand-new pack of crayons yet by the end of the meal every last crayon would land in the trash along with the food remnants.
I noticed this and thought nothing of it the first few times but as I kept dining out I began feeling a tad guilty. That guilt grew and grew until the small thorn in my side eventually became so big that I realized I had to do something. First, I tried collecting the crayons that my daughter was given and within a month I had about 50 crayons. I knew this was not the answer.
There had to be a solution for this wastefulness and suddenly it dawned on me when I had a distant memory that came rushing back. I was about 10 years old living in New Jersey. We had moved there a few years back after immigrating to the US because of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Life wasn’t impossible for my family but it was definitely a struggle. I spent most of my childhood playing outside in a creek right by my house because toys didn’t come my way very often. I distinctly remember the appreciation I had for my crayons and how much I cherished their familiar smell.
That year, my family saved up so we could take one of our first family vacations. We went to Acapulco, Mexico so that we could escape the freezing winters of the east coast. We went to a lovely hotel in Acapulco and had all the wonderful amenities you could imagine. One evening, my father suggested we go to an authentic restaurant in the town. As soon as we arrived a beautiful hostess handed my sister and I several trinkets to play with during the dinner. We had a great time and as we left the hostess said we could keep the little toys she gave us plus she gave each of us a balloon (mine was yellow).
We started our walk to head back to the hotel and within a few moments I had a swarm of children smiling and squealing with delight all around me. They were drawn to us thanks to the floating yellow balloons that my sister and I were holding. Sure enough they pointed to all the treasures in my hands and the balloon as well. It was then that my mother whispered to me, “Sheila, please give them the balloon and the little toys you have because you will play with these for just a few more minutes but this will bring joy to these children for months”. Of course, I listened reluctantly but I saw the sheer joy that I was able to conjure in another person. The children were absolutely thrilled and I will never ever forget their faces and those smiles that were because of the small gift I shared.
Returning to the lunches and dinners with my 3-year-old once again here in Los Angeles, CA I thought about the lesson my daughter was learning. Subliminally we were teaching her that wastefulness is okay and that she could leave 4 good crayons behind without a second thought despite the many children around the world who would treasure them for months to come.
I did some research and learned that restaurants in America throw away about 150 million crayons per year. These crayons are made of paraffin wax and do not decompose and end up clogging our already filled landfills. Aside from the negative environmental impact we were making there was a huge discrepancy in Title 1 schools. These schools simply did not have the resources to provide the supplies children needed so they depended on their teachers to fill the gap. Teachers were forced to spend an average of $750/year of their personal earnings on classroom supplies. (This still is the case sadly but at least we have found a way for any teacher in America to gain access to the crayons they need.)
I knew I had the beginnings of a solution but I had to find a way to deliver them from the restaurants to the schools. I realized that shipping crayons was not sustainable and it was also extremely expensive. So I considered a community based effort. I started by asking restaurants to collect the still good crayons kid diners leave behind. Next, I called the closest Title 1 schools within 5 miles of the restaurant. Title 1 schools are the most in need as over 50% of the student body live under the poverty line and receives government support. Much to my chagrin, the schools were thrilled to receive the crayons that their local restaurants had collected for them AND they were willing to pick them up once per month. Mean while, the restaurants had felt guilty about throwing away good crayons for years and were so relieved to learn about a solution that would support their local public schools.
The Crayon Collection was born. The more I expanded the effort the more I realized that I needed to formalize the initiative to become a registered 501c3 organization. Next, I was able to slowly build out our first program, Crayon Recycling, which everyone called a “win-win”. Today, I am proud to say that we serve in all 50 states and in 10 countries. We have donated over 20 million crayons, served over 140,000 students in over 10,000 schools. The organization continues to grow as we have made it possible for anyone, anywhere, to start their own Crayon Collection. We actually rely heavily on people to get inspired and help out when they see perfectly good crayons being thrown away in their neighborhoods.
Finally, we decided to do something more with all the crayons we have been saving and continue to redirect into underserved schools. We launched our Art Education Program when we learned that kids in Title 1 schools weren’t receiving any art education at all due to budget cuts. So we decided to do something about it. We began challenging professional artists to create project ideas using crayons and paper as the main tool. Once we received their project we then turned it over to volunteer teachers who would turn their projects into lesson plans that were also compliant with the standards teachers must teach. We realized that we had to do this due to the lack of time teachers had in their day so we started to teach art under the guise of early reading, writing, math, shapes etc. It was a perfect opportunity to reinsert creativity into the school day of so many children nationwide.
Today we not only continue collecting and redistributing still good crayons, teach an award winning art education program, but we also launched our Color Kindness Program. This is a great way to connect people to one another through notes of kindness. It began when kids in well served communities would collect their crayons and instead of donating the entire box to a school, we asked the kids to repack the crayons in 3×5 inch cotton pouches along with a note of kindness. We did this when we realized that many kids do not have crayons to call their own and to take them home with them to continue creating outside school hours. The notes are always a huge surprise and bring so much joy to the children who receive the note as well as the children who write the note.
Adults have even gotten involved too! We partner with many large corporations whose employees want to give back and show a little kindness. They come together to write notes of kindness and pack crayons in individual pouches. Everyone could use a little kindness so this program is really for the entire world to participate in. We even hosted the “World’s Largest Kindness Event” in August 2020 where we came together to show our gratitude to Frontline Heroes around the world who are working so hard to keep us safe during this unprecedented pandemic.
If I had one thing to share with anyone reading this it would be to be less afraid to take action. I am the last person who thought I would be running a charity but I am here doing something I love because I knew there was a better way than throwing away millions of crayons each year. Many times we all see things around us that don’t make sense or could potentially have a better solution and if we can think of a solution it’s up to us to take action because if it hasn’t been resolved yet it’s likely because no one else thought of an answer.