By Michael Carmichael
December 18, 2008
Peg Upmeyer has always been a teacher, initially in a more formal classroom and now as part of an often-traveling educational program called Arts and Scraps. Corp! caught up with her between schoolroom visits that can often be as far as two hours away from the Arts and Scraps home in Detroit.
Corp!: How did Arts and Scraps come about?
Upmeyer: There were three of us who saw a need in the community for both materials and ideas for people working with kids. At the same time, there were businesses throwing away tons and tons of stuff that is interesting and useful and stimulating. To put the two together was something we’d seen in other parts of the country, and Detroit seemed like an idea place for it.
Corp!: Are there any requirements for the scraps?
Upmeyer: Safety, above all. We have to watch for materials, chemicals or coatings that are on things. Second would be sharpness or slivers. Things just have to be safe. Color is a bonus because there usually isn’t a lot of color on the insides of things. So if someone has a little plastic cap and it’s red, we get very excited. Little things get us excited. Car bumpers, not so much - mainly because a teacher can’t buy 35 of them for her class to work with.
So, little is better. When we go visit a company for the very first time they want to show us all their big, exciting stuff - and we say “well, that’s nice. Now let’s go look at the garbage can by every station.” And we go look in their dumpster and start hauling stuff out and saying “look at this; here’s what this could be” and they look at us like we’re crazy. The second time you go back to get more stuff and you take them something you’ve made with their first contribution - and by the third or fourth time you get the guy on the loading dock going “we’ve got something that could be a butterfly!” So they see that stuff they’d be throwing away is making a difference. It’s saving them landfill costs. It’s something they can do for their community and for kids for very little effort.
Corp!: And you pick the stuff up in your Scrapmobile?
Upmeyer: No, the Scrapmobile is just for schoolkids. It’s a 26-foot bus, a rolling store essentially. It looks like a bulk food candy store when you first walk in. It has all these brightly-colored bins full of 22 different materials. When we visit a school we do a curriculum project and then the kids get to shop and fill a bag.
We pick the materials up with a van we call The Ten Buck Truck. Everyone who gives us $10 gets their name on the vehicle. At the same time, we’d like to find a business that we could feature on the doors of this van in exchange for either money or a reduced cost for the vehicle. It’s going to be on the road for more than 11,000 hours over the next seven years.
The whole crux of what we do is active learning, critical thinking, problem-solving and presenting learning in a way that is exciting and challenging - and makes kids think! If it’s too easy and they don’t have to think about it, it’s not interesting. So if you can make then use those other skills - which is the first thing people want in the business world - if you can get them doing that, and realize that they have a creative brain, no matter what the end product looks like, they’ve thought it through and met the challenge. You equip them in a different way. And that’s what we’re all about. This weird stuff takes them out of their regular way of thinking into a world where anything can happen.
Corp!: How did you learn how to become an effective manager of Arts and Scraps?
Upmeyer: There are tons of organizations that support nonprofits and I took lots of $20 and $35 workshops and did a whole lot of reading and I still go to classes because you have to keep learning as things change.
Corp!: Have you ever thought of yourselves as being “green?”
Upmeyer: It’s very interesting because we’ve been doing this for - in March 2009, it’ll be 20 years - and all of a sudden these new opportunities are opening up because we’re green which is what we’ve been doing all those years anyway. Now we can use the green label as an excuse to get in the door and then endear them with our regular qualities as well.
Corp!: What kinds of kids do you work with?
Upmeyer: Our target group is underserved children, but we serve 275,000 children each year from all over the seven county Metro area. We drive up to two hours away, so we go as far as Flint to do things. And we recycle 28 tons a year. We also do a lot with people with disabilities. We’ll have 200 volunteers a week that, as vocational training, sort and prepare and bag our materials. We work with them up to retirement age and they feel like they’re helping the little kids. It’s a very exciting program.
Corp!: Have you always been a teacher?
Upmeyer: Yes, and I’m still doing it.
Corp!: What do you do when you’re busy with Arts and Scraps, if that ever happens?
Upmeyer: I’m very active with my church. I network all the time. My husband and I watch a Netflix movie once or twice a week. I knit. I walk on my treadmill. I read. And we really like to travel.
Corp!: What do you read?
Upmeyer: Anything and everything. I go to the library, pick a letter and start down the row. And if I don’t like it, I’m an adult and I don’t have to finish something.
Corp!: Closing thoughts?
Upmeyer: We always say if you ever throw anything away or if you know a child, you can interact with us. Even if you don’t throw things away, we do customized kits for businesses as giveaways. We manufacture products that can be branded for organizations to give away. For a nonprofit we’re multi-faceted and entrepreneurial.