AURORA | It’s not just students who have to get back-to-school supplies. Every year, teachers and other school employees stock up at the beginning of the school year — often out of their own pocket.
Those pencils, scissors and tissues can add up. Former Aurora Public Schools teacher Patti Oda said that she regularly spent hundreds of dollars getting supplies each school year. When she retired, her husband joked that the money she was saving was like a pay raise.
On Wednesday, Oda and fellow retiree Kathy Gobin were volunteering at the APS Foundation’s Educator Emporium, a new program created to help lift that burden from teacher’s shoulders.
Run out of a small room in The District Credit Union office in Aurora, the Emporium is a free store stocked with school supplies where APS employees can come and pick out items for free instead of having to spend their own money on school supplies.
“It’s been a godsend to everyone,” Gobin said.
The Emporium began last year when the APS Foundation received a huge donation of school supplies from the Walmart on Tower road that hadn’t sold due to the pandemic.
“We thought, OK, how do we make this sustainable and impactful?” said Jill Ruiter, the Foundation’s executive director.
That’s where the idea of the Emporium arose, where teachers could sign up in advance for a slot and visit the store to get supplies for free. Due to remote work there was some office space free in the credit union’s building which allowed the foundation to set up its store and a storage room for restocking.
The credit union does a lot of financial literacy education in local schools, so Ruiter said the partnership has been wonderful for allowing teachers to meet the union’s employees and learn more about the services they offer students.
The Emporium is funded and staffed by the APS Foundation, which Ruiter said receives a lot of financial and in-kind donations from corporations as well as individual donors.
Last week the foundation was featured on 9News anchor Kyle Clark’s “Word of Thanks” campaign, where Clark highlights a different small or medium-sized Colorado nonprofit and encourages viewers to each donate $5.
In an article, 9News said that on average, APS teachers spend $750 of their own money each year on school supplies.
As of Thursday, the Word of Thanks campaign had raised over $46,000 for the Emporium from individual donors.
“That was amazing,” Ruiter said.
The Emporium was open last week for teachers — Ruiter said more than 500 teachers visited the store in just two days — and this week for early childhood educators, who start school next week. But along with the start of school, it will be open for several days each month so that teachers can stock up throughout the school year.
Ruiter said the foundation hopes to keep running the Emporium in perpetuity due to its success in the first two years. So far, dry erase board and sheet protectors are some of the hottest items — and post it notes.
“Teachers love post-it notes,” Ruiter said.
Preschool teacher Tatiana Ryan, who made a trip to the store on Wednesday, was most excited about the adult-sized scissors. She had spent the entire last school year using the kid scissors that were in class for her students.
“You don’t think of it but that’s not something you would ask parents to bring,” she said of the item.
For preschool, she said that teachers give parents a list of items they should have their children bring at the beginning of the school year, but that doesn’t always cover everything the teacher needs and not all the students bring all the supplies in the list, sometimes because their families can’t afford it. Just over 74% of APS students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the district’s website.
Ryan said that teachers manage to make it work with whatever supplies they have, but with the Emporium “it’s nice that we don’t have to struggle to have the resources.”
As word has spread about the Emporium, more teachers have visited it this year than last year. Preschool teacher Mariah McGrant heard about it for the first time this year from a colleague who learned about it at the new teacher fair.
Now that she knows about it, McGrant said she’s been telling as many people as she can about the Emporium.
“It really helps shift the burden,” she said. “It shouldn’t be on families or teachers to get supplies.”