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More than one-third of Chicago teachers report spending over $1,000 of their own money on classroom supplies during the school year.

On Tuesday, May 16, Barbara Koenen and Carolyn Ottmers of Chicago Creative Reuse Exchange (CCRx) shared a meal with fellow Chicago-area artists, teachers and nonprofit professionals as part of the region’s annual On the Table event to discuss how their industries could collaborate to change that statistic.

1/3 of Chicago teachers spend >$1K of their own on supplies/year; @CreativeChiRx Swap Circle aims to change that

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“We know teachers need stuff. They’re extremely creative and generous,” said Koenen. “People don’t listen to them very much. They don’t realize that they’re the ones forming the future out of the kindness of their hearts, so we wanted to work directly with them and the Chicago Teachers Union.”

Two women stand side by side holding signs, one says Odds/Ends and the other says Crazy Stuff

Carolyn Ottmers, left, and Barbara Koenen created the Swap Circle to lighten the financial burden on Chicago teachers, who routinely spend their own money to provide classroom supplies.

Koenen and Ottmers submitted their idea for providing teachers with classroom supplies they need to the Acting Up awards—a grant program that helps great ideas from On the Table conversations spring into reality.

Their $2,500 Acting Up award was followed by a $25,000 grant from the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation. As a result of this support, CCRx hosted the first-ever Swap Circle for Teachers at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters.

Nearly 500 teachers attended the Swap Circle on August 11-12, gathering free supplies from a collection of generously donated materials valued at an estimated $50,000. We talked to a few of the teachers at the Swap Circle, to hear how it made a difference for them.

A smiling woman holds up a binder and a full tote bag

Celina Petersen, St. Sylvester School
Teaches: 5th – 8th grade science
Teaching for: Nine years

“As a science teacher, I am really passionate about reuse in general. A lot of teachers in Chicago, whether you work for CPS or the Archdiocese, you have to pay for your own supplies. For me it’s really important to keep things out of the waste stream and allow for teachers to come and trade things and find things they can actually use in their classrooms. It’s a monetary thing and also a ‘save the earth’ thing.”


A smiling woman wearing glasses stands next to several boxes

Cassie Bowers, Camp Red Kite / Chicago Children’s Theatre
Teaches: Visual arts to children ages 8-17 on the autism spectrum
Teaching for: Five years

“I’m really excited because we don’t have a big budget or a lot of resources for this camp. As a visual arts teacher, I need more supplies for various projects. I’ve found so many interesting materials I can use to create different sensory projects.”


A smiling woman holds a large plastic storage bin

Yvette, Tonti Elementary
Teaches: Parent Resources
Teaching for: Three years

“Education is undervalued. A lot of people don’t realize how much effort, time and money goes into buying resources for the classroom—and to have a successful school year you need those resources. Sometimes they’re hard to come by because we don’t have budgets that allow us to get those resources. A lot of the times in my classroom I have to be creative and think outside of the box with where I find my resources.

“The parents I work with come from low-income backgrounds so I can’t ask them to contribute money to take my class. I’m providing a service to someone, and as a teacher and someone who wants to make a difference, it’s really difficult when neither party has that kind of money for those resources.

“It’s great to see other teachers coming together and donating what they have because everyone has a little bit—anyone’s trash can be another person’s treasure. I’ve found a lot of things for my classroom so far and keep thinking ‘Wow, I can’t believe someone threw this out!’ It just shows you the tight-knit communities teachers created around the idea of being creative, for the sake of our children.”


A smiling woman stands behind a table piled with glass tiles and mosaic supplies

Sarah, Artist/Volunteer

“I think art is very important for the whole world. We don’t give teachers what they need. There are so many passionate people out there spending their small salaries on materials for their students to make art. When we can come up with something like this to provide them with the supplies they need, it’s so wonderful! No one is hurting from a program like this, except the landfills are emptier, people are making art and learning great ideas.”


A man wearing an apron demonstrate silk screening as a man and a woman watch

William Estrada, Telpochcalli Elementary
Teaches: Visual Arts for students in kindergarten through 8th grade
Teaching for: Twenty years

“I have an infinite love for education and using art as a way to mobilize and organize our communities and how art can be used to tell our stories. I started teaching and fell in love with it—something I didn’t think I was going to do, initially, but once I started teaching I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

“There’s so much waste that we produce and a lot of need for these materials. Thinking about how to creatively repurpose materials we’re no longer using is a huge asset all of us can benefit from. For me, it’s really important to start thinking about how materials are used outside of the school environment and how the community can come together through this creativity.”


A large room piled with stacks of books and boxes. Many people stand around the room looking at the supplies

The organizers are looking ahead to see how they can make this a sustainable endeavor. “We want the Swap Circle to become an important part of Chicago’s infrastructure. We also hope to start being a convening place for people to share ideas and teach each other, to inspire creativity and collaboration in projects,” says Koenen.

“We want to establish a permanent facility, long-term relationships with the business community, and with teachers and nonprofits, so everybody knows: if you need stuff, you can get it here.”