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Nonprofit allows Duluth teachers to 'shop' for free supplies

A large rack of bulletin board sets are available at the Companies to Classrooms-Duluth for teachers to use in class. (Bob King / / 2
Mary Jo Jauert (left), executive director of Companies for Classrooms-Duluth, and Mary Beth Kjolhaug, director of operations, describe their newly created nonprofit organization that distributes excess goods and supplies from businesses free to teachers and school staff. Their "store" is in a large space at 2703 W. Superior St. (Bob King / / 2

When Mary Beth Kjolhaug and her husband, Erick, closed their Explorations store in Billings, Mont., three years ago, the unsold classroom supplies came home with them to Duluth in a trailer.

"I didn't have the heart to throw the merchandise away," Mary Beth Kjolhaug said. "And I really didn't want to give it to the Billings, Mont., teachers because my heart was here with the Duluth teachers. And I thought: Well, if somebody's going to just get the stuff for free, I'm going to haul it here to Duluth."

The result is Companies to Classrooms, a store filled with classroom supplies where everything is donated and free for Duluth public school teachers. The store, at 2307 W. Superior St. in the Lincoln Park business district, will open in December after a sneak preview the Monday after Thanksgiving.

The Kjolhaugs, who owned the Duluth Explorations store for 10 years, continued to live here while running their Montana store and made the 900-mile trip between cities.

Mary Beth Kjolhaug knew she wanted to make good use of the trailer full of classroom materials she still had, but the idea didn't immediately take shape. She knew it would involve Duluth.

The idea evolved as she and Mary Jo Jauert chatted while walking their dogs in the Congdon Park neighborhood. Kjolhaug had retail experience, Jauert financial -- in 2009 she was laid off from UBS Financial Services, after 18 years as an financial adviser.

They officially started their nonprofit in January, modeling it after a similar enterprise, also called Companies to Classrooms, in Bloomington, Minn. The founder of the Bloomington version, located in a warehouse near the Mall of America, is Cari Weatherby, who willingly shared her ideas and her store's name. Weatherby, whose husband is a Duluth East graduate, even joined the board of the Duluth version.

It works like this: Local businesses donate excess supplies, which are stored and displayed at the Lincoln Park store. Teachers can visit the store as often as once a month to stock up on needed items for their classrooms. Supplies include copy paper, scissors, rulers, folders, binders and erasers, among other items. While they last, materials from the Billings Explorations store also will be available.

Their goal is to distribute $200,000 worth of goods in their first year, Kjolhaug said.

Kjolhaug said she knows from her Explorations days that teachers pay for classroom materials out of their pockets. "Now I think it has evolved into some of the basics of providing ... core classroom supplies," she said.

Jauert and Kjolhaug spent this year making the rounds of businesses and school groups, and encountered enthusiasm in both directions. UBS Financial Services donated furnishings and office supplies when it closed its office in Duluth. Maurices and Super One already have been big donors.

"Everyone we spoke to fell in love with the idea," Jauert said. "Of course, the school system would. But the businesses, too. They're just excited about getting rid of this stuff and having it reused."

After looking at warehouses, they settled instead on the 2307 W. Superior St. property, part of the building owned by ZMC Hotels as its corporate headquarters. Boasting about 1,800 square feet of space, it was clean and nicely painted, and morning sun pours through the windows facing Superior Street. It was a good fit: ZMC had planned all along to lease the space to a nonprofit. The women declined to discuss the financial arrangements except to say that ZMC has been generous.

Jauert, the executive director, and Kjolhaug, the director of operations, eventually hope to draw salaries. Otherwise, the work force will be all-volunteer. About 20 people have volunteered so far.