When Kay McKeen was growing up, her family lived the “waste not, want not” lifestyle.
Her parents and grandparents instilled in her the belief that you didn’t waste anything and you didn’t hurt anything, even a leaf on a tree. Vacations were spent camping, out in nature or having picnics. Back in those days, it wasn’t called being environmental.
So, it may be no wonder that the woman who said she spent time as a girl with her aunt, a Girl Scout leader, cleaning up highways gathering soda bottles to clean the roadway and to also cash in for refunds, helped create a local nonprofit that has not only acted locally, but had a positive impact on others globally.
McKeen can scarcely believe how far her nonprofit SCARCE has come over the last 22 years. What started out of her home has grown to be a vital community resource.
In August, SCARCE (School & Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education), will celebrate its 22nd anniversary. The nonprofit, located in Glen Ellyn, has a mission to: “Inspire people, through education, to preserve and care for the Earth's natural resources, while working to build sustainable communities.”
The organization is multi-faceted, offering workshops on a number of topics such as composting and water conservation. It has a variety of recycling programs including those for cell phones, used gym shoes gathered for reuse or recycling; school books and office resources for teachers. And, it also assists other nonprofits with much providing environmental education or much needed resources, such as desks or chairs.
The organization has thought locally for years, but its reach is global, with some items making their way as far as Fiji, McKeen said. A local resident wanted to send books to an orphanage in Fiji and saved up the money to ship them, then she was able to find the books and other items needed to be sent the very long distance.
How it all began
McKeen said she and some friends used to take their recycling to Naperville, when the recycling facility was located along the Riverwalk. She said they learned some residents in Wheaton were doing a neighborhood recycling program. The friends decided to see if it might be possible to start a recycling program in Wheaton.
She realized not everyone knew about recycling and she started to meet with local groups, like the Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club, to help educate the community about recycling.
The program started small in Wheaton and the village provided some land for the recycling program to begin, she said.
“The Mayor of Wheaton said he had wasted $16,000 of taxpayer money,” she said. But, at the end of the year the program had made $20,000 from recycling items collected. The city was paid back and other local groups that helped the group get its start received the remaining funds as donations.
DuPage County officials contacted McKeen and asked for help starting a county-wide program, which was called SCRAP.
“I’m stunned by where we are,” McKeen said. “I feel privileged that our interns and our team get to be involved with sustainability and pollution prevention. … I am grateful to the companies that are willing to bring us items. I sometimes think it would be cheaper for them to throw them out, but they seek us out.”
One business that has regularly been working with SCARCE is the Westin Hotel in Lombard, McKeen said. “They have people there who are involved and don’t want to create waste.”
Businesses that purchase new furniture, desks, office supplies or other items such as foam board used during presentations, donate those items to the nonprofit, which then shares them with others who can use them, such as other local nonprofits.
By gathering the items, the nonprofit keeps them from ending up in landfills, companies often save money, nonprofits in need and on tight budgets are able to benefit from receiving the unwanted items and save money they might spend to purchase the much needed items, she said.
“Once people start working with us they see where we fit in different aspects of their life,” she said.
Sharing knowledge, teaching others
For the last seven years, the nonprofit has been located at 799 Roosevelt Road, in a warehouse tucked away behind some office buildings. It is a major resource for teachers who find books, games, office items and other resources needed for classrooms, students in need and special needs students.
The nonprofit not only helps teachers, it also helps students. Whether offering volunteer opportunities or internships in environmental education and stewardship. Some of the SCARCE interns have gone on to find jobs across the country using the skills learned in real-life settings with nonprofits or city governments, McKeen said.
A large number of volunteers help out at the center daily, organizing donated items, stocking shelves and assisting those making donations.
SCARCE is also very involved in education and works with groups that want to learn more about sustainability and the environment. The organization offers workshops that provide teachers with college credit, McKeen said. The workshops are tied into STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
McKeen said the teachers spend a week on a bus traveling around the area learning about the local environment, from how water is processed to the recycling process, she said. Prior to participating in the workshops many of the teachers had no idea what went on in their own backyards.
“When I started this I was called a bag lady, liberal, new age,” she said. “When I started people thought it was a garbage issue, it’s really a resource issue.”
The key is to know what can be composted, reused or recycled and trying to keep to a minimum what is dumped in landfills, she said.
All of the work she does with SCARCE keeps McKeen very busy, but she said her husband Greg has always been “the wind beneath her wings,” adding, she tells people his wings are hiding under his shirt. He often spends time helping out at events or at the warehouse.
“He’s definitely concerned about the environment,” she said. “And, we have four grandkids. Clean water and clean air are what it is all about.”
The nonprofit will be among the various social service agencies and nonprofits attending the Catholic Charities Back to School Fair in August at the DuPage County Fairgrounds. The nonprofit is in need of books and collecting them through Aug. 3. It hopes to have 12,000 books to give away to children in need. Learn how you can volunteer or donate on SCARCE's website. The nonprofit is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.