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Teacher twofer: Getting free classroom supplies and helping cut landfill waste

Goodie bags are a mainstay of conventions, and organizers always bring extras, fearing that running out would be a convention catastrophe. But when it’s over, the swag (Stuff We All Get) isn’t of much value anymore. Or so it seemed.

Watching teachers leave the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on Thursday laden with bags and boxes of goodies, half of which would have ended up in the Apex landfill, was proof that, yes, someone else’s trash can be a teacher’s treasure.

Teachers from seven schools were invited to pick through a ton of trash — whoops, I meant treasure — at Mandalay Bay. It wasn’t exactly Dumpster diving, but teachers poured over stuff, looking to see what might be helpful in their classrooms.

“Anything in here, I could find some kind of use for,” said Jessica Lonchas from Kelly Elementary School, one of the smart ones who came with a collapsible box on wheels, which she packed to overflowing capacity. Sanitizing wipes, tote bags, pencils, crayons, pencil holders, folders, paper towels, glue, notebooks and key chains. “It’s worth $300 at least,” the human calculator said about her haul.

Nearby, another teacher was packing her prize Wiggles tote bags into a large bag.

Melody Peterson, Yvonne Percell and Lyndsay Kalas, all first grade teachers from Culley Elementary, wore big smiles of satisfaction. “It’s better than the mall, everything is free,” Percell said.

They all agreed they spend an average of $1,500 of their own money for school supplies each year.

So the offer from Mandalay Bay, working with the Teacher Exchange, to come and take whatever they want from a room packed with stuff, was an offer 370 teachers from seven schools couldn’t refuse.

About half of the stuff would have been tossed as unwanted swag by conventions unwilling to pay the cost to send it back.

The other half was specifically donated by hotel employees at all MGM Mirage properties and donated to the Teacher Exchange program. The employees provided some of the most practical and valued items, such as hand sanitizers and wipes for a school year in which swine flu is a real concern.

Early birds arriving at 3 p.m. snagged the choice items, such as two greeting cards from the now closed Reading Room, which once had been on sale for $50 each. Latecomers before the 6 p.m. shutdown were allowed to take more. But even early birds were leaving laden with five and six bags.

Mandalay Bay Human Resource Vice President Michelle DiTondo, whose husband is a school principal, said this was the first year the hotel actively asked conventions to donate materials. “I think they feel better about donating it than tossing it,” she said.

Home Depot decided it was cheaper to buy two color printers for its convention and donate them than to ship them back and forth. So one lucky school now has two more color printers.

Teachers are an imaginative lot because they seem able to take nearly anything and make it useful. Sunshields for vehicles turn into excellent butterflies. The identification tags conventioneers wear around their necks are perfect for hall passes, keeping track of children on a field trip, even human Scrabble games (each kid is a letter).

“If every property did this, think how much we’d do for our kids,” said Vicki Herman, director of educational resources for the Public Education Foundation.

Since 2002, the foundation’s Teacher Exchange has accepted donations of reusable, recycled and gently used materials and equipment and provided them free to Clark County teachers. (If you have materials you’d like to donate, call 939-6659 for hours and suitability.) “Book shelves are like gold,” Herman said. Pentium 4 computers and flat panel monitors are helpful. No televisions, please.

Mandalay Bay isn’t the only resort to help out schools with partnerships. But this idea of asking conventions to donate their swag instead of tossing it was such a common sense idea that the only question nobody could answer was: Why didn’t someone think of this before?

Someone had a practical idea and now it’s reality, something even the most rabid critic of the environmental movement would have trouble bashing.

Just wish we had more common sense green ideas that work.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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