"Every hospital I spoke with I got the same response. They were like, we are out here on our own, fundraising, trying to find crayons, (saying) 'our kids might get two colors, that's all we can afford to buy,'" said Bryan Ware, the Crayon Initiative's president and founder, describing the nonprofit's inception. "In child life departments there is a stipend from the hospital normally, but it's not really funded because they often can't."
The first donation was made in February 2015 to the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. That year, Ware and his team donated 5,000 packs of crayons to various hospitals, mostly across the state. In 2017, 37,000 packs were donated. Ware said that the initiative has already donated 85,000 packs this year and estimates they will celebrate their 200,000th shipment before the year lets out.
"Some people want us to go all around the world and I go, 'I'm still figuring out what we are doing here.' So for now we're focusing on right here," Ware said with a laugh, while acknowledging that going global is not out of the realm of possibility.
The idea for the Crayon Initiative was planted in 2011 while Ware was at a restaurant with his wife -- a school teacher and the Crayon Initiative's secretary -- over how she was going to provide crayons for her classroom.
"My conversation with my wife at the time was, 'What's it going to cost for you to be a teacher this year?' Art was cut from the California budget in 2011 and that was a problem," Ware said. "Art was what kept me in school. So that was the jumping point."
Ware saw an opportunity to take discarded crayons from restaurants, many of which will throw away an entire pack after one use due to sanitary issues. Over time, the idea evolved to donating the crayons to children's hospitals in need and the rest is history.
While local restaurants still provide thousands of crayons every year, today the Crayon Initiative receives material from a hugely diverse set of donors all across the country. In an intricate system, the nonprofit will send boxes to 5,000-6,000 schools across the country, who will acquire crayons from various sources and send them to the initiative.
The decision to supply hospitals with crayons was reinforced when Ware started to meet the patients who received the supplies. One of the earliest he met was a young girl who didn't speak English.
"Her eyes lit up and she starts coloring and is like, this is cool. It's one of those things kids instinctively get and it brings adults back to their childhood," he said.
Crayons are constantly flowing in. Some come in five at a time in an envelope from a third grader, and others on a palette sent from a corporate fundraiser. It is estimated that the nonprofit has collected nearly 18 million crayons from these diverse donor sources that have been distributed to 137,950 patients across the country, all manufactured in the initiative's base of operations in Danville.
What makes the large number of hospitals reached even more impressive is that the entire operation is almost completely run by volunteers. On average, the Crayon Initiative has somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 volunteers collect and manufacture the crayons per year. Ware says volunteers are mostly local folks and range from elementary-aged students to senior citizens.
Crayons donated are sorted by color and then stripped of their paper cover -- the paper is donated to Duraflame to be kept out of the landfill and made into fire logs. Next the raw crayon pieces are melted down and cooled in a mold. Finally volunteers will place the crayons into boxes -- after sanitizing their hands of course -- and ship the boxes to partnered hospitals.
Volunteers have to be at least 12 years old to participate in the melting process, but anyone can help sort donated materials by color.
"We also do family events once or twice a month," Ware said. "Then we have 3- and 4-year-olds sorting and running around. They can see what the process is even if they can't partake in the process on this (the melting) side."
This exponential growth has not come without its challenges. While overhead costs decrease as the organization expands and more crayons are manufactured in the Danville facility, logistics costs begin to go way up.
The initiative is always grateful to receive crayons from willing donors, but physical crayons are not the only need the organization has. Financial donations can be just as important as the raw materials. Ware says that on average his organization pays over $1,000 a week in shipping costs, far and away the largest drain on financial resources for the nonprofit.
"That's the big problem with the growth we've been having. We're doing great but we are spending more money to cover more ground," Ware said. "We supply the hospitals free of charge so we have to pay for that freight. It takes money and people can have a tough time understanding that."
The Crayon Initiative is also always looking for volunteers, either to hold fundraisers or help assemble the crayons at its Danville facility, 155 Railroad Ave. Suite E. The facility is typically open four to six days a week, but hours of operation can fluctuate based off of Ware's schedule. More information can be found at: https://thecrayoninitiative.org/volunteer/.
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