Dreamers and Doers
By Meda Kessler
Photos by Meda Kessler
The Welman Project continues to fill classrooms, but it’s also sparking creativity and building community
With apologies to Disney, The Welman Project headquarters might be the happiest place on earth.
That may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s hard not to feel good when you pull up to a cinder-block building off of Vickery Boulevard that went from drab to fab, thanks to a commissioned mural from Caya Crum. With the motto “fill a classroom, not a landfill,” Welman founders Vanessa Barker and Taylor Willis have come a long way since moving into this space in 2020.
There’s Barb the Bus, looking vibrant thanks to a special paint job from local artist Kristen Soble.
And there are smiling people dropping off donations of everything from notebook paper to rolls of fabric. They’re getting rid of stuff while knowing it’s going to a good cause. Inside, wide-eyed teachers are pushing carts through the Educator Warehouse, a shopping area for educators only, picking up free supplies for their classroom. The key word is “free.” You can almost see their minds spinning over what they could make with that fabric or those ribbons.
Volunteers are more than happy to answer questions (most of them are teachers), and a new employee is delighted to tell you that leaving a corporate job was worth it to work somewhere as magical as The Welman Project.
Of course, there has to be a special spot inside such a wonderful place. Here, it’s Dad’s Garage, a spacious part of the building filled with printers, projectors, power tools, sewing machines, glue guns and all kinds of supplies, as well as long tables perfect for crafting, building and painting. Welman holds community workshops in the space, or members of the public can host a team-building event or craft party there. Kids who are part of an after-school makers club meet here, too. If there were a secret password for this club (you really only have to pay and show up), it would be “let’s get messy.”
Barker and Willis started Welman in 2015 with the mission of keeping out of the landfill stuff that might have a second life in classrooms. Instead of teachers buying supplies with their own money, they could browse Welman’s inventory.
In 2020, they moved into this 5,200-square-foot building, a former screen-printing business. One of the biggest pluses: It had heating and air conditioning. A negative: It had flooding issues, but those have since been overcome, with only the occasional roof leak.
Giving the exterior a big lift is the mural by Crum, a Fort Worth artist and Welman fan.
The Curiosity Shop, open to the public, puts money into the Welman coffers with the sale of donations marked at bargain prices for anyone — adults and kids — who love to craft or reuse and recycle in creative ways. Know a kid who needs to make a diorama for a class project? There are old trophies, perfect for party favors; spools of yarn that could double as gift-wrap ribbon. “If you or your child has a project, the Welman staff is here to help you,” says Barker.
Activity in the warehouse might look chaotic, but it’s actually a neatly organized space of donated goods. Staff and volunteers help guide shoppers to interesting finds. A room next door serves as the storage space for incoming goods. Donors can drive up to the exterior door to unload.
Barker and Willis have even carved out space for an office — where onetime school lockers are used by volunteers and employees — and a teachers lounge. Ikea in Grand Prairie, a fan of creative reuse, furnished and set up the cozy lounge, complete with sofa, chairs and lighting.
The Vickery location is a win for everyone, Welman’s founders say. “Aside from the AC and heat, it’s more centralized, and so many more FWISD educators have been able to find us,” says Barker. “We served 3,000 teachers in June, July and August. They got about $800,000 worth of goods that probably would have been thrown away.”
The business community is supportive as well. The project’s neighbors, including the Swiss Pastry Shop next door, let Welman use their back parking lot for overflow visitors.
And don’t think donations come only from individuals cleaning out their closets. Fort Worth businesses such as Simple Things Furniture Company and Dickies are regular donors. A large quantity of unused paint cans came from an airplane manufacturer. And there are many other items given by major corporations that prefer to remain anonymous.
The client list is growing. One teacher posted about The Welman Project on social media and got 25,000 shares. Teachers have driven in from as far away as Houston. People in Dallas are begging Welman’s founders to open a second location.
It’s not just about the goods. “We’ve become more collaborative and community-oriented. Welman is about advocacy and values,” says Willis. “It’s something that we hope rubs off on the kids, too.”
They enjoy fueling a creative spark and practice what they advocate when it comes to reuse: No one at Welman has printed business cards (they make their own), and a phone booth now holds a water dispenser, eliminating the need for single-use plastic bottles.
Barker’s mind works in mysterious and unusual ways — Willis readily acknowledges that her business partner is a right-brain thinker — and she’s proud that the Welman calendar is filling up with classes and semester-long programs such as “The Secret Society of the Imaginari,” a makers club where imagination is the glue that holds everything together. There’s a day class for home-schoolers (fourth through eighth grade) and an after-school program for second- through fifth-grade kids.
Barker and Willis talk a lot about the “stuff” that makes up The Welman Project, but they focus more often on the people. There are seven full-time employees and two part-timers.
“They’re passionate, creative and make teachers happy,” says Barker. “And they make us happy. So, we know we must work at being good employers, too. Every dollar we make from the Welman sales and events goes back to helping us do all of that.”