Raelyn Harman is no Jeff Bezos, but she could really use some warehouse space and e-commerce infrastructure right about now.
Boxes of crayons, books, markers, glue sticks, and pencils are gobbling every last inch of the Havertown woman’s house: the garage, the entry foyer, the dining room, behind her couch. Donations from individuals, companies, retail stores.
The clutter is a snapshot of societal problem-solving in the hands of an ordinary citizen. This is what it looks like when determined individuals try to repair what government and corporate philanthropies have ignored. Pandemic be damned, Harman is trying to engineer a system to get school supplies into the hands of teachers and, from there, the homes of their neediest students in suburban Philadelphia.
The solution to a long-ignored systemic problem is a 62-year-old woman with grown children and a lifelong commitment to helping people whenever she can.
Let’s give Harman some applause.
Then, let’s get her some help.
Let’s put off complaining, for now, about the failure of our government and deep-pocketed institutions. Their indifference reflects a fraying of our social safety net and societal moral fiber. But outrage alone cannot address a problem that, till now, had been handled exclusively by already-overtaxed teachers.
The pandemic’s destruction of many service-sector jobs this year has squeezed caregivers and children in already-fragile households. Making sure kids in such homes have pencils, paper, or erasable markers as they struggle with sometimes shared computers or no computers at all during virtual learning is the least any of us can do right now.
Harman is embarking upon this without the generous financial slack of a day job that pays stock options or comes with membership to elite clubs. She is an office worker at an Ardmore church, her husband a hospital nurse. But she believes you claw at an unsolved problem. She spent years working in Philadelphia schools and human services jobs.
She formed Teachers’ Teammates as a nonprofit this year. For a $35 annual membership fee, teachers can access the group’s store of free supplies and distribute their pickings to students. Teachers in resource-challenged schools would no longer have to tap their own paychecks to help children in their charge.
This year, more than others, has only intensified the need.
“The economic downturn has made school supplies luxury items for many families,” Harman said.
She went on a fact-finding trip to the foundation a year ago. Then, she started doing what she did to get my attention: She reached out to people across the community. In some cases, as when she recently wrote me an email, her overtures were little more than cold calls. She wanted people to know what she was cooking up.
“I wasn’t waiting for introductions,” Harman said. “I spoke to elected officials, school superintendents, administrators, principals, teachers, community organizations, ministers, government officials, retired teachers.”
Donations poured in after she incorporated her own group a few months ago.
“I’m relentlessly letting businesses know, ‘If you have surplus inventory, we can move it for you,’” Harman said.
Already, the group has sent support bags to high-need districts including William Penn, which includes Lansdowne and neighboring communities, and Southeast Delco next to that.
“Our first supply drive was to provide Back-to-School teacher bags to 52 teachers at Darby Township School,” Harman said. “Added 30 small ‘thank you’ bags for support staff.”
Principal Leanne Hudson says custom-made postcards with enclosed stamps in those packages were hugely helpful for teachers at the grades 1-8 public school where all students receive free lunches due to financial need.
The postcards are an important way to send rewards home for a job well done while keeping the teacher-student-parent bond strong during the virtual, home-based learning that many districts have been forced to deliver in the face of COVID-19 contagion.
“I think she gave each teacher about 30,” Hudson said. “Every student was able to get at least one postcard.”
Harman also sent 3,000 student supply bags to all K-6 students at William Penn, whose students also are all-virtual. She won a $10,000 grant to underwrite half of that — money that came through in less than two weeks from the crackerjack folks at the COVID-19 Response Fund of the Foundation for Delaware County. That is remarkable turnaround speed in the world of grant awards.
As we spoke from her front stoop on a recent frigid afternoon, my eye caught piles of boxes — and Harman’s husband, Gopal Subramanian — through the swung-open front door.
“He’s my sorter, counter, and packer,” Harman said. Her husband smiled with affection.
When I asked how it felt to be at the center of this clutter storm, Subramanian got teary. He required a few moments to compose himself. Then he told a story.
They were still just dating. It was years ago. Every weekend when he’d call, Harman’s phone line would be busy. Always. She was tending, without fail, to elderly aunts and uncles back in Upstate New York.
“I’d speed-dial just to get through to her,” Subramanian said with a laugh.
“That,” he said, “is how caring she is.”
Aside from needing an expanded storage solution, Harman’s latest project faces one other key challenge: getting overtaxed educators across Delaware County, her target area, to know that the group exists and has supplies ready for dispatch as early as next month.
“What we have could be wiped out in no time,” Harman said. That’s how finite inventory is at this early stage.
It’s up to the rest of us to keep it flowing and growing. Send Harman a direct message on the Teachers’ Teammates Facebook page or at email@example.com.