Junk to Genius: An Interview with Donna Sangwin of Recreate

Donna Sangwin, founder and director of ReCreate, speaks to Maker Ed program coordinator Justin about trash, tech, reuse, and education. ReCreate is a creative reuse non-profit based in Roseville, CA and has been committed to reducing waste “through art, education, and imagination” since 2009, offering a full menu of maker education programming, both in partnership with local schools and at their drop-in center. ReCreate is a returning Maker Corps partner site and a new Maker VISTA partner subsite for 2016! 

Justin: Why did you start ReCreate?

Donna: I had been working in public radio and it was time to recreate myself. My son was in preschool and he was about to go into Kindergarten. At that time, schools were in a serious budget cutting mode, the arts were slashed and teachers were getting laid off. It was not a great time to have a child starting school. I kept thinking somebody’s got to do something. I believe that to have a well-rounded kid, you have to have arts and open ended learning opportunities. At that time there was a big focus on raising standardized test scores.  

I came from the business world, we threw away so much good stuff. I always felt like, if only I had the time to go find a school that could use the great things that were getting tossed. Of course, nobody ever seems to make the time to do that when they’re busy working, but that waste bothered me. It was always in the back of my mind. A colleague sent me a link to The Scrap Exchange in North Carolina and I was inspired! I started researching other creative reuse centers. There’s a program in Santa Barbara that’s one of the best in the nation, called Art from ScrapI went and spent a week there learning and shadowing them on their program. Then I decided, “I’m going to do this!”

Justin: What did ReCreate look like in the beginning?

Donna: For the first several years that we had ReCreate, we would divert materials and provide a school program for elementary school students. We called it More Art, Less Waste. We would go into their classrooms and talk with them about: Where does your garbage go? Why should you care? How can you make a difference? Reduce, reuse, recycle, basically. The kids would choose a little kit of materials and  make something out of it: a robot, a cat, a dog, a snake, whatever they wanted. All of our kits are open ended making – no instructions! The first year we ran ReCreate out of a storage unit and box van going to the schools. Fast forward nine years and we have now seen over 50,000 students – classroom by classroom, with this program. We now also have a 3,400 square foot Reuse and Maker space. The More Art, Less Waste program is funded in our region – so we provide it at no cost to the schools. In California, there is funding for waste reduction education. It was a sneaky way to get art into the schools, and at the same time, teach the kids to be good environmental stewards!

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Justin: How else have you been sneaking art into the schools? What other educational programs do you offer?

Donna: We have afterschool programs that we call Maker programs, which are less about waste reduction and more about just the making. We have a building/prototype class, where we work with cardboard and a laser cutter and graph paper. The kids figure out what they want to make and we create everything from hats to small buildings. We have an Art Meets Tech program, where we basically add tech to art. We’ll paint with spheros or add LED lights to paintings. All of our programs are open-ended, so the kids really get to take it in the direction that they want. We are also a Maker Corps Partner Site for Maker Summer Camps – we mix art with almost every maker project we take on!

Justin: These programs work primarily, but not exclusively, with youth. What does Recreate have to offer adults?

Donna: Every year we hold an event called Junk 2 Genius—this is our 7th year. It is a team-based,  timed art competition and it is the most fun thing! It’s like the cooking TV show Chopped, but like Chopped meets your recycling bin. We give participants a mystery box of reuse materials. We give the teams a theme, and the clock starts. Teams have two and a half hours to come up with a sculpture based on the theme. Most of our teams are adults. Getting adults to create when there is a clock ticking is powerful. When we run art based workshops, many adults out there claim “they can’t do it”; they’re afraid to do it and they just don’t want to put themselves out there. But because the clock is ticking, they just forget and start making and creating. It’s really cool! And I wish I could do it every month, it’s an empowering time for the participants! We also offer workshops at our Reuse and Maker space on everything from jewelry making to paper making.  

Justin: How did ReCreate become involved in the maker movement?

Donna: I’ve always been fascinated with the maker movement and thought, there has to be a better way for us to use these supplies; bigger, grander ways. We’ve been watching the maker movement as spectators for a while and realized that it was the perfect fit for our materials. I decided ReCreate was going to get into the maker world because maker education is life-changing. It empowers kids to problem-solve and innovate. At first my board was hesitant, because we were buying things – like 3-D printers and technology. They said, “Wait, we’re supposed to be just about reduce. Our mission is about waste reduction” and I said, “No, we’re supposed to be about meaningful reuse.” Our programming is a mash-up of adding technology to our reuse materials and the outcome is that we can provide a lot of maker experiences at a very low cost.

Justin: ReCreate will return as a Maker Corps partner site this summer. What was your favorite part about being a Maker Corps partner site last summer?

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Donna: For a while I felt like I was on this island out here making. I grew up in the Bay Area so I would have this envy about the collaborative making happening there. I’d wish I was back in that place where everybody is making. I realized, I need more community for ReCreate as we develop our Maker program. I need people to collaborate with. I found Maker Ed on Twitter. I put in an application for Maker Corps and we were thrilled that we were accepted. My Maker Corps Members last year were amazing! They were both engineer-focused: one was a high school student on his way to Stanford University to study mechanical engineering and the other was this 20-something female mechanical engineer.  She was in the midst of relocating and was taking the summer off and decided that being a Maker Corps Member would be a great opportunity to do something different and inspire other girls to learn about engineering. We had a great experience because it gave us that community we were wishing for. The biggest thing I found was that ReCreate wasn’t on working alone – we connected with so many people and organizations taking on similar projects and challenges. We love the collaboration of Maker Corps. We can’t wait to see what this summer brings!  

Justin: How do you source your materials?

Donna: We rarely pick up the phone and call anyone these days. It used to be that we would have to call and ask, “Hey, do you have anything?” Over the years we’ve cultivated great relationships with regional businesses. Now they call us and say, “We’ve got some great stuff for you.” We get a lot of materials from tech companies…not necessarily what you’d expect. I thought we would be getting electronic boards or maybe equipment that was outdated. We get unusual stuff. One company that makes semiconductor chips gave us these super cool clear boxes that they used for shipping. They also donated round foam pads that fit into the boxes. We get a lot of treasure from architecture firms. People cleaning out their craft rooms bring us stuff. Printers give us paper. We get shoe inserts from a shoe store. We rarely get offered something and say no.  ReCreate will divert about 75 tons of materials this year.

Justin: What’s one of the coolest things you’ve seen made from materials ReCreate sourced?

Donna: Somebody was renovating a giant organ and they donated the organ pipes. We had no idea what we’d do with them, but we took them. An artist purchased them to create a wind organ in his garden.

Justin: What’s your favorite ReCreate memory?   

We created a gigantic—8 feet tall by 16 feet wide—cardboard based mural. We had kids and adults – everybody, from girl scout troops and volunteer groups from companies like Aerojet here locally to day-of-service volunteers and artists, worked on it. We even took it out to the Crocker Art museum for one of their art and wine nights and people got the opportunity to add to this mural. It depicts the life here in Placer County. That was probably one of my favorite things because of the scope and because so many people had their hands in it. I think it’s up on our website, and that’s not even all of it.

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Justin: What’s in store for ReCreate in the future?

Donna: We just got some funding for some after-school enrichment programs which are taking off later this month. (Thank you Cognizant for the Making the Future grant!)  One of them is called Maker Carnival, where the kids are going mash up tech with traditional carnival games. The kids will be making very robust collaborative projects. They’ll also be making bike-powered food concession contraptions and a robot petting zoo. That’s happening with one of our middle schools. We’re also doing a film festival which I’m super excited about! Kids are going to be writing their scripts. They’re going to learn how to shoot their video, but they’re also going to be making their props or claymation or whatever they want for their movie.  Finally, I can’t wait to start a maker program called Empowerment; it’s basically inventing for good. Kids are given the challenge of trying to make a better situation for somebody with a special challenge. Students will interview them, find out what their challenge is, and then design and make something to help them.  Making to improve quality of life – that’s what it is all about, right?!

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