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Nonprofit's free school supplies help teachers empower students

Teachers estimate spending hundreds of dollars a year out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, which always makes a visit to the Teacher's Desk a must before the start of school.

It’s here in this warehouse on Northampton Street that teachers serving some of the region’s poorest students shop for binders, books, pencils, paper, notebooks, glue sticks, folders and scissors and more – all for free at the nonprofit school-supply store.

In fact, the Teacher’s Desk is as busy as ever.

Reserved shopping days – Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings – are booked straight through December, drawing teachers from as far away as Rochester and the Southern Tier to load up their carts with free classroom supplies.

“I don’t know how these teachers do it,” said John Mika, founder and director of the nonprofit, “but if we can do anything to help them in their journey, and help these kids, it’s a win-win.”

Ninety-four percent of public school teachers spend an average of $479 of their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement, according to results of a survey released in May by the U.S. Department of Education.

Mika, 64, thinks it’s more, particularly in poorer urban and rural districts, something the retired auto worker found out years ago as a substitute in city schools.

He recounts his own teaching experiences, like when a kid ran up to him with a runny nose but there was no tissue box in sight. Or when it was time to do work and only three or four kids were equipped with a pencil. He learned some teachers don’t even bother to send home supply lists because families can’t afford to fill them.

Mika, who grew up in a middle-class family and never realized the disparity between the haves and have-nots, came up with the concept for the Teacher’s Desk: Any teacher in a school with 70 percent or more of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch are eligible to shop for free.

The store opened in 2011, and since then the cause has only gotten bigger.

The building, a former publishing house, and utilities are covered by the William and Diane Hein Foundation. Nearly 80 businesses and organizations donate an estimated $6 million worth of supplies each year. More than 15 foundations and donors provide funding to support a small annual budget, a third of which goes toward shipping costs.

And each week, Mika gets the help of 225 volunteers, who sort the supplies and keep the shelves stocked for the 220 teachers passing through weekly from August through May.

That’s some 6,000 teachers a year, each carrying out as much as $1,000 of free school supplies.

Teachers fill their carts with supplies at the Teacher's Desk, a nonprofit that allows area teachers for qualifying schools to pick out donated classroom supplies for free. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Mika – a man of faith who lives in Williamsville with his wife, Brenda – likens his story to the miracle of the fishes and loaves.

“It’s incredible the amount of resources we get from the Teacher's Desk,” said Jennifer Bialek, a computer teacher at Charter School for Applied Technologies.

Some students don’t bring in any of the supplies they need, Bialek said. As a classroom teacher, she estimates spending anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a year on materials.

“Usually it’s important things like paper, pencils, markers, glue sticks, dry erase makers, folders, notebooks,” Bialek said. “Our schools can only provide so much and the Teacher’s Desk fills in a lot of the gaps.”

Teachers enter through a nondescript side door with shopping carts waiting for them.

Inside, the store is welcoming and orderly, with supplies neatly organized in seven aisles. There’s a wall of binders and paper along the back and a library of new and used books in the corner. The warehouse is in the back.

To make sure as many as possible will benefit, there’s a limit to how much of each product a teacher can take. The only requirement is that their class send thank-you notes to the donors that are spotlighted each week.

Mika doesn’t consider the Teacher’s Desk an entitlement program, but rather an empowerment program.

“If you don’t have a pencil, you don’t have a chance,” Mika said. “That’s the motto of what this store is.”

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