John Mika Gives Schools Desperately Needed Supplies

Back to School: John Mika Gives Students Desperately Needed Supplies
From left: Amber Berry, John Mika and Kathy Sider
Mike McGregor

09/06/2012 AT 10:05 AM EDT

How can teachers help kids learn if they don't even have the classroom basics like pencils and paper?

It's a question that retired autoworker John Mika asked himself back in 2008 on the first day of his new job as a substitute teacher in Buffalo. When he asked his third graders to take out their pencils for a writing assignment, only three of the 27 students had pencils.

"Nobody had paper, either," says Mika. "These kids were struggling."

When he checked the teacher's desk, he found a box of pencils the teacher had purchased herself for the youngsters. That got him thinking: What if he could provide free supplies to teachers at the poorest schools, many of whom spend hundreds of dollars a year out of their own pockets for supplies?

Three years later, Mika opened the Teacher's Desk in a donated warehouse. Set up like an office supply store, the nonprofit venture allows teachers from area schools to shop free for donated supplies, including pencils, paper, glue and books.

Mika has provided $374,000 in supplies to 1,247 teachers since October 2011. And, says fifth-grade teacher Amber Berry, who used to spend $500 a year on supplies, the benefits go far beyond saving money: "It's like someone has given us teachers the hug we need."

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