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High school students turn trash into treasure at Durham Scrap Exchange

by Liz Bell |

“When you know what you’re doing, shout it out big!” said Ronnie Graham to a room full of teenagers on a Thursday afternoon in Durham. Graham’s instructions to the students of two art classes from Hillsborough’s Orange High School were simple: use whatever you want, and create.

The teenagers rummaged through bins filled with an array of materials including fake flowers, springs, and unidentifiable plastic widgets.

The materials and space are part of the Scrap Exchange, a creative reuse center that takes materials that would be thrown away from local businesses and residents and shares them with the community.

The facility includes a retail store, an art gallery, and open space for people to create works. There are also workshops like the one taught by Graham, a Chapel Hill resident who facilitates classes and volunteers in the community.

“First thing, everything here is recycled,” Graham said. “Second is put on a smile and have fun.”

Last year, the Scrap Exchange bought approximately 80,000 square feet of a former shopping center across the parking lot from the current building.  The NC Community Development Initiative’s (CDI) short-term loan for $2.5 million enabled the Scrap Exchange to make the purchase. It is the first step of the long-term goal of creating a larger Reuse Arts District.

“This project was a natural fit for loan capital from Initiative Capital, our investment arm,” said CDI’s CEO Tara Kenchen. “The Scrap Exchange’s track record for creating jobs through repurposing waste is just the kind of innovative economic development we are looking to support.”

While the store will eventually move into the newly purchased space, the workshops will stay in the  current space, Graham said.   

Graham oversaw the creation of a cardboard flower vase by ninth-graders Magda Sanchez and Karina Castaneda. The students had heard about the center but had never visited the facility. Both young women were excited to spend an hour or so making something and appreciated the mission of the Scrap Exchange.

“It’s like a way of cleaning the world,” Castaneda said. “The fact that you’re reusing the stuff that people thought you couldn’t, and you’re making it into a better thing, it’s… a better thing.”

Other teens shouted their ideas for creation to Graham: a wheelchair, a birdhouse, a wind chime, a wreath, a mask, several crowns, and a trophy.

Sophomores Tessa McGuire and Rebecca Thomas, who, respectively, take Advanced Placement Art and Art 4, have visited the Scrap Exchange multiple times to gather materials for projects or just see what interesting tidbits they can find. McGuire took the opportunity to make a flower crown she called “a wearable art piece,” while Thomas crafted a sculpture of a person.

“I like people, a lot,” Thomas said. “That’s my favorite thing to make. I draw people, I paint people, I make sculptures of people.”

McGuire said she likes to make a lot of her own clothes, just like her mom. They come here together often.

“It’s great to get pre-owned fabric here instead of going somewhere and getting new fabric,” she said.

Thomas, on the other hand, comes to look through old prints and photographs. “I just think they’re interesting,” she said, laughing. “I mostly just hoard them.”

Educators Micki Henderson and Rae-ann Daughtry, who teach separate art classes but share a classroom, were happy to give their students access to a variety of materials.

Henderson said it not only gives students time to get creative, but it also “teaches them about recycling.”

Graham bounced around the room, complimenting students on their creations. As she grabbed a few materials, she said her dream was to invent something.

“My heart is with art,” she said. “My abilities are not. In my next life I will have classes and know how to put things together.”

With a couple circular pieces of plastic, she said she could make a holder for a lid to a pot, since you never know where to put it while cooking.

“I really love this,” Graham said. “I like to see what the kids are coming up with. Look how engaged they got right off the bat.”

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