Stephanie Taylor, a behavior specialist, has used DonorsChoose.org to supply the Cubs Den at Four Corners Elementary School (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Monica Brillig began teaching at Myers Elementary School in 2007, her classroom came with a desk for her, tables and chairs for students, and a filing cabinet.

For everything else - bookshelves, a class library, school supplies - fellow employees suggested she should “hit the yard sales and thrift stores.”

By the end of the year, she’d found another solution: DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding site for teachers and educators to buy supplies for their classrooms.

“I needed books that were high interest and supportive of my struggling readers,” Brillig wrote in an email. “The district did not supply any classroom books beyond textbooks at the time, but we were expected to have lots of books of many reading levels and topics for our students to learn from.”

She paid out of pocket for many, but the site helped her fill the gap.

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It’s long been an expectation that teachers spend personal money to supply their classrooms – so much so that there’s a specific tax deduction for educators who buy supplies. That may work for pencils and notebooks, but a classroom’s need can quickly outstrip a teacher’s ability to pay.

In the past five years, Salem-Keizer educators have raised $400,000 for over 700 projects around the district on DonorsChoose.org. Nearly three in four projects are for elementary school classrooms. Often, they cost just a few hundred dollars.

CHECK OUT: All active DonorsChoose.org projects by Salem-Keizer teachers

Many schools using the site regularly have a high number of low-income students: 75% or more qualify for free school lunch.

At Hayesville Elementary, a fifth-grade teacher got watercolor trays and papermaking supplies to add art for her students.

At Swegle Elementary, a classroom aide got numbered jerseys and cones to help students play basketball.

A McKay High School teacher used the site to get copies of a critically-acclaimed young adult novel, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” in Spanish to motivate students to read.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Started in 2000 by a New York City history teacher, DonorsChoose.org lets donors browse projects for public schools around the U.S. Teachers describe their students, the challenges they face, and how the materials will help them learn.

Unlike on many crowdfunding sites, teachers don’t get money transferred to them. They pick needed supplies from approved vendors. Site staff and volunteers then order the materials and ship them directly to the classroom once the project is funded.

Teachers can fund anything from basic supplies to Chromebooks or lab equipment. Flexible seating options like beanbags are a common request, as are books and supplies for art and science.

Many say the site also functions as a morale boost, especially when donors across the country give. Teachers often share their projects on social media or email friends and family, but it’s not unusual to have complete strangers with no ties to Salem chip in.

“There are people out there that believe in the work we do in schools and want to help fund that,” said Stephanie Taylor, a behavior specialist at Four Corners Elementary School, who’s used the site to equip a special school room to help kids process emotions and calm down during the day.

Large corporations often contribute to projects, and some categories, especially science and technology items, have matching funds available. More than once, a celebrity or company has paid off every project on the site.

In 2016, Stephen Colbert announced on his show that he would fund all projects in his home state of South Carolina. Two years later, cryptocurrency company Ripple donated $29 million to pay for more than 35,000 active projects.

Taylor said she always tries to have two or three projects fundraising in case someone with the means decides to be similarly generous.

Fifth-grade teacher Noah Hall said DonorsChoose.org is one of several places he seeks outside funding to enhance his classroom, with a particular focus on science and technology.

He teaches at Brush College Elementary in west Salem, a school that’s shown particular enthusiasm for the site. Teachers there have funded 31 projects worth about $10,000 in the past five years.

He’s used the site to get more Chromebooks for his class so each student can use one. One of his projects got a $500 donation from a group of graduating MIT students Hall didn’t know who wanted to help kids use technology.

“When I got that donation I was just floored,” he said.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Hall found DonorsChoose.org when he was seeking something like Kickstarter to use for the classroom. He’s a musician and had funded several music-related projects through Kickstarter, so he started looking around to see if something was out there for teachers.

Last week, donors bought his classroom subscriptions to Time for Kids for $126. On the project page, he explained how he hopes to engage his students in current events.

“Over half of my students are reading above grade level. The same is true for math. My students love learning through inquiry, rather than being lectured. They are hands on learners,” he wrote. “They will use them to learn close reading skills which will help them throughout their entire educational careers. They will use them during math to respond to economic issues. They will use them during science to learn about new discoveries and environmental issues.”

It only took four people to bring the magazines to his class. Hall said he tries to describe his students so donors can connect to them.

“If they feel what you feel about the kids ...it means a lot to them as a supporter,” he said.

Stephanie Madison and Beth Tinseth, both teachers at Myers Elementary, are also DonorsChoose.org power users. Both appreciate that the site lets them do more in the classroom without dipping into their own pockets as frequently, though Tinseth said she usually donates to her own projects.

“We’re always needing supplies,” she said.

She started using the site in 2009 after a colleague told her about it and had her first project fully funded by Target.

“It was amazing,” she said.

Madison has used donations to bring science into her classroom, adding posters and materials showing life cycles. While the district provides curriculum and materials for English and math, science items are more sparse.

“The kids went crazy for them,” she said. She sends out an email to parents once when she has a new project and said some donate, though many can’t afford to.

Madison has had projects funded by Cards Against Humanity, the popular adult party game that often makes charitable giving part of an annual holiday promotion.

Tinseth, who teaches a bilingual class, has expanded her library of Spanish-language books thanks to donations through the site. She also serves as an ambassador, helping other teachers across Oregon use the site.

Both said other teachers in their building sometimes come to them for help with projects. Madison said her first request took about an hour, but now she can get a project posted in about half that time.

“Other teachers rely on you,” she said.

Stephanie Taylor, a behavior specialist at Four Corners Elementary School, tidies up the Cubs Den, a room for kids to get help with emotional regulation and social skills. Many supplies in the room were bought through DonorsChoose.org (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Four Corners Elementary teachers are regulars on the site, with 40 projects funded from the start of last school year until now. Another 15 are live on DonorsChoose.org, including helmets for skateboarding lessons in PE and art supplies for kindergarten students.

School principal Ingrid Ceballos said a culture of using the site was well-established when she came to the school this fall.

The school has one of the highest student poverty rates in the district and has no parent club or PTA to pay for “extras” in classrooms.

“A lot of these things would have to come out of our general fund,” she said. That fund doesn’t have the money to buy close to everything teachers could use.

Taylor, the behavior specialist, relies on a mix of DonorsChoose.org, personal spending and sifting through her neighbors’ Goodwill donation piles to stock the Cubs Den, a converted classroom that serves as a refuge for students who struggle with regulating their emotions and behavior.

Light blue covers blunt the harsh glow of fluorescent overhead lights, and students can crawl through a tunnel, play with a fidget spinner, bounce on a trampoline to let out excess energy or read a book about learning to follow directions.

The books and many of the supplies she uses with students came from funded projects. Her next project will be a color printer in the room so staff can stop making the long walk to the school office to pick up pages and increase the time they spend directly with students.

Taylor said the whole building gets in on the excitement when new boxes arrive from DonorsChoose.org.

“Usually the principal will send out a big announcement when someone’s project is funded,” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.