Learning From Scratch: a true community endeavor


Betsy Hamm, right, works with Carla Hartman (granddaughter of the late Charles and Ray Eames), Angela Placencia and Amber Oudsma (at left.) Photo by Jim Gebben

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Former special education teacher Betsey Hamm knew that the students she worked with, and others like them, needed hands-on projects to be successful in the classroom, but unfortunately, materials were costly and hard to come by.

“I wanted to set up something for teachers in the community where they could obtain things to do hands-on learning,” she said.

In 1999, while taking a class herself, Hamm hit upon a solution that would not only supply teachers with costly materials at a steep discount, but would also help businesses reduce their landfill waste.

“I realized it’s really important to capture the things that companies are going to dispose of that are still useful for arts and education,” Hamm said. “I put those two things together and realized I had something I could do that really captured my attention, and that is how I got started.”

She reached out to local companies and schools, and before she knew it she was collecting vanloads of all kinds of scrap materials each week. She set up a store called Learning From Scratch, where teachers, artists and anyone else could come and purchase materials.

“People can come in and purchase nickel and dime stuff or $4 bags of materials like sticky foam, Velcro pieces, fabric, plastic, plastic tubing — all kinds of real odd things, anything that they really need to put together science projects or art projects, or projects to go with stories they are reading,” she explained.

Hamm uses her special education background to create sample projects, as well, and the walls of her store, located within the Comprenew store at the corner of 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, are covered in creative project ideas.

“They can make puppets out of medical sponges, Christmas trees out of yarn cones,” she said.

Hamm said that during her 12 years of operating Learning From Scratch, it has become a clearinghouse of sorts for businesses that want to get rid of outdated office supplies and furniture through donation.

“Steelcase, Herman Miller and Cascade Engineering will call and say they’ve got closets and offices full of materials that they no longer want,” she said. “They will pour all those things into boxes, and I will go and pick them up. There will be van loads of materials like binders, three-hole punches, staplers. … I donate it back out to the community, to teachers and schools and students — that never crosses over into the store. Nobody has to make any donation for that.

“A lot of the excitement is in the businesses because they are pleased not to throw it away and pleased that it has another life,” she said. “And they are pleased to see what happens with it because when things get made, I photograph and send it back to the companies so they can see what is happening to it. I make scrapbooks for some of the companies so they can see, ongoing, what is happening to their items.”

Hamm also makes sure the recipients write a thank-you note that goes to the company that donated the materials.

As if she was not already doing enough to benefit the community, Hamm also has worked with Lincoln Development School in developing a curriculum for students to learn work skills through her store.

“The autistic program is very active in what I do,” she said. “They do much of my sorting and packaging. Those are the job skill teachings that the teacher and I put together in a curriculum for those students so that when they move on, they are stronger than they were when they started. That is a very integral part of what I do.”

Hamm also receives help from the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and occasionally others, but she said the work is very physical in nature and that can make it difficult to keep volunteers.

Hamm does all the company pick-ups and school drop-offs herself. She said she is on her fifth van, having driven four of them into the ground over the course of the company’s history. She also has an out-of-commission school bus she hopes to turn into a mobile arts bus to drive around downtown filled with art supplies.

“I’m looking to add more people to come in and access the materials, but would also like the support of other companies, because I know there are more things out there that are different from what I have, and I would like more companies to look at it and for more business support,” she said.

“There is only so much I can do by myself.”

Learning From Scratch is not generating much in terms of profit. Hamm said it she just hopes to have enough each month to pay the necessary bills to keep going.

“It’s not about making money. It’s about having Lincoln School participate. It’s about being able to donate office supplies to schools that need them. It’s about being able to support teachers and people that come in, to be positive with people that don’t feel like they can put a project together."

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