BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“We rescue used and new art, crafts and school supplies, we transform them into new life treasures, and bring them to 28 underserved countries around the world.” —Mariela Bertorelli, founder, Upcycling Colors.
Think burnt umber, midnight blue or perhaps, atomic tangerine—if you are a millennial—and picture your first box of Crayola crayons, beautifully pointed and unforgettable in smell. Invented over 100 years ago, Crayola crayons rank with perfectly sharpened pencils and colorful eraser tips as a magic door to childhood memories for many fortunate people.
Chicagoan Mariela Bertorelli, who rescues crayons, sharpens pencils, finds clean eraser tips, re-fills glue bottles, and seeks out paints shares the results with young students and artists worldwide.
What began with one suitcase sent to a school in her native Argentina now totals 60,000 pounds of shipped supplies—including re-packaged puzzles, any kind of paper, coloring books, LEGOS musical instruments and teaching supplies.
With 1000 volunteers who create artistic magic for kids from Ghana to Ecuador, Haiti to Vietnam, Pakistan to Puerto Rico, the international and local project began in Bertorelli’s apartment.
“Two years ago I decided to go through my 10-year-old daughter Francesca’s arts and crafts supplies. I found so much that was half-used and I began by removing packaging and sharpening pencils then taking them to a school. My mom came to visit and she said I had a project with potential. I contacted ten friends to ask if they had any leftover art supplies at home to share. They brought many, many bags and soon we were sending 100 pounds of supplies to India. We drove around the City to see what schools might want the supplies. What began as my hobby has grown so very fast.
“Although we have continued to work in my apartment, Upcycling Colors grew to off-site workshops and warehouses people loaned us, even to parking lots in good weather. We now work with community and business groups who want to encourage voluntarism and create teams to do the work. We go to the company, school or organization with supplies and work with the teams to re-condition the items.
“Our organization’s work wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many friends, particularly Cindy Laegeler, one of my first Chicagoan friends who has been working side by side with me.”
Bertorelli emphasizes the environmental aspect of her work:
“We have no carbon footprint, we are totally re-cycling materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill at the end of the school year. Teachers don’t have time to re-organize their artistic supplies when school’s out. We found there are so many half-used bottles of glue for example.
“People lose puzzle pieces or LEGO parts, coloring books often have just a few pages colored or sticker pages have just a few removed. Left-over paints are great for high school projects.”
Schools in 18 underserved Chicago communities receive the re-cycled supplies as well as afterschool programs, community centers, and special education classes. Orphanages and refugee centers around the world are also recipients.
Tasks are easily sorted at an Upcycling Colors event. Stations are set up for volunteers to sort through colors to get rid of broken ones and add new crayons, sharpen pencils, cut off used pages of stickers, and examine board games.
“If we find a piece missing and it is a popular game like Candy Land we look in other donated boxes of the same game for that missing piece.”
Some of her best volunteers are children who have shown that they love nothing more than sharpening pencils.
“My daughter Francesca has helped from the beginning we now have children as young as three who help their parents. Little hands get very busy sorting. They learn that they are helping children around the world. They learn what countries will be receiving their work and that maybe those kids have never seen paint or crayons before.”
Bertorelli was 12 when she received her first big box of Crayola crayons in Argentina given by her aunt and uncle. “I still remember that amazing smell and at first I wanted just to look at them.”
“We are changing how people think, that you keep all things and work with them and then wow, they look like new! This is a movement that teaches people not to waste and to share with others. We are telling kids around the world ‘we care about you’.”
For more information about Upcycling Colors go to upcyclingcolors.com