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Salvaging the Scrap Exchange

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The Scrap Exchange, located in downtown Durham, has worked hard for 10 years to collect and distribute industrial waste for reuse in the arts and education, toward "increasing environmental awareness and promoting creativity." Scores of children have walked through the Scrap Exchange gleaning bagfuls of byproducts: fabric and foam rubber, paper and plastic. It's "a total gem," claims Robin Magee, drama coordinator at the School of Science and Math in Durham. "Fabulous for costume and set pieces at low expense to those of us doing theater on a low budget."

The Scrap Exchange serves teachers, day-care providers, parents, event coordinators and artists through in-store sales, birthday parties and workshops. The organization conducts about 400 workshops annually, and is very active in the Durham Public Schools, helping reinforce teachers' curricula (about the rain forest or music, for example). Their booths are a standard feature at events like Durham's Centerfest and Raleigh's First Night. They work with local museums, libraries and parks and recreation departments. A dozen similar programs from around the country have sent representatives for training at the Scrap Exchange, which alone provides services to six states.

The director, Pat Hoffman, has just resigned, after eight years at the Scrap Exchange. Hoffman says she is "leaving without regrets and with lots of gratitude." She's still very enthusiastic about the service Scrap Exchange is providing to the Triangle, but the heavy workload, lack of community resources and constant fundraising efforts have depleted her.

Hoffman categorizes the Scrap Exchange as an "entrepreneurial nonprofit." The organization brought in almost $200,000 this year, through sales, events and workshop fees. Up until a couple of years ago, that level of income was sufficient. But when the organization lost the space previously subsidized by Northgate Mall, the cost of renting a building added a heavy burden. Board president Jacob Ehrisman says there's been a real effort to keep prices affordable for those who need the materials. Workshops are offered at fees less than the cost of providing them.

September and October are normally the busiest months for the Scrap Exchange. But this year sales are down, as are requests for workshops, another consequence of the sinking economy and people's understandable preoccupation with war. Ehrisman fears that the Scrap Exchange may have to sell off its stock and vehicles, and "go into hibernation" until the spring.

But it's not just a monetary shortfall that's brought about this current crisis. Board members are alarmed by the lack of community involvement and the unwillingness on the part of local agencies to provide consistent funding for the organization. "We need somebody to subsidize it because they see how valuable it is," says Hoffman. "We're trying to figure out how to get stakeholders invested in the organization."

If unable to secure funding from the public agencies they serve and develop a larger base of volunteers from the community, the Scrap Exchange may well not survive.

So what can you do to keep the Scrap Exchange around? If you live in Durham, contact your local representatives and urge them to find funding. And your monetary donations are more than welcome. The Scrap Exchange held two public meetings (Nov. 8 and 11) to gather community input. A Scrap Exchange Restructuring Committee is being established. Volunteers are needed to serve on this committee for three months, to redesign the organization and its relationship with the community. Even shorter-term volunteers are needed to make phone calls and send out e-mail.

"It will never be too late to resurrect this great idea," says Hoffman. "It could be revived if people see the beauty of this thing."

(For more information, call the Scrap Exchange at 688-6960, or go to www.scrapexchange.org.)

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