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The Nonprofit Scrap RVA Just Crossed the River



Inside 120 W. Brookland Park Blvd., there are buckets and bins dotting a black-and-white-checkered floor. Just about any craft item imaginable is in the containers: paints, beads and yarn. But the products aren't being bought from vendors — these are donations. You might see perfectly fine scrapbook paper that was leftover from a wedding, for example. Such is the concept behind Scrap RVA, which envisions itself as a creative reuse center that's educational, economical and environmentally-friendly.

"We want to be known as a comfortable space to come be inspired, and as a place that gives back," says director Molly Todd. "We give back by being cheap, by doing 'crafternoons' for kids in the neighborhood, by supplying events with materials."

While a December move from Plant Zero tripled the shop's size, there have been challenges, too. As Kermit the Frog is known to say, it ain't easy being green.

"It has been tougher than I thought," Todd says. "Being savvy about retail while juggling the sustainability mission, the community outreach and the nonprofit element."

But there's institutional support, thanks to Scrap USA, which has art-focused reuse centers in five other cities including Baltimore and Portland, Oregon. It's exciting to become part of the network, says Sara Wilson McKay, a Scrap RVA advisory board member and chairwoman of the art education department at Virginia Commonwealth University. She guided this newfound status with the help of board members Mary Pearce, Renee Stramel, Thomas Mazich and Kim Chiarchiaro.

"They [Scrap USA] were encouraged that we've been so persistent and successful at creating this nonprofit from nothing, without a director," Wilson McKay says. "They wanted to honor the work that's been done here."

Back in 2008, Scrap RVA was known as Stuff. The idea was born from a VCU art education class called Creative Sustainability, taught by Sarah Branigan Fought. "With the art school and the art community in Richmond, I felt a creative reuse center would be a great addition to Richmond and would also be helping the environment," Branigan Fought says.

Stuff spread its word through a free speaker series, which attracted recycled work from local bricolage artists like Noah Scalin. But as a small, volunteer-only operation, it was difficult to grow.

"We partnered with Art 180 for a few programs and had a good momentum going, but did not have funding prospects for staff or programs," Branigan Fought says.

That's when Stuff was picked up by Wilson McKay and a new team of collaborators. In 2012, Wilson McKay received a message from Ann Ritter, who had unused medical supplies and containers from VCU's Medical Center.

"I remember carrying about six or eight large clear trash bags of normal saline bottles from the hospital into my car," Ritter says. "Every space was filled with a bag. The kids would make piggy banks or bird houses out of them."

With Ritter's involvement, there was renewed support for creative reuse in Richmond. VCU donated a temporary headquarters in Scott's Addition. A graduate assistant even received a grant to go on a countrywide tour of creative reuse centers. The real test was to find a low-rent space, Wilson McKay says. In 2015, the group settled in Manchester and continued to establish generous partners like Habitat for Humanity, who provided surplus warehouse space.

"They came through for us when we were unsure of the future, when there was a time we could've been dead in water," Wilson McKay says. "It was a beautiful gift. We've been lucky and benefited from the kindness of Richmond." 

Today, in Brookland Park, there's a distinct sense of Scrap RVA finally taking root.

Where else could you find a bin of used piano parts, or a workshop on felt flowers?

"I've had people come to me saying, 'You know, I've never gotten a chance to knit,'" Todd says. "People really want to learn these skills." 

Todd says makers will eventually get access to an online marketplace called Kuttlefish, which functions like an Etsy for reuse artists. It's another perk of joining the Scrap USA network. But locally, there's a drive to revamp those disparate partnerships that Scrap RVA made its name on. The group built rest stops for fatigued walkers at this year's Folk Festival, and there are plans to supply materials for Family Day at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

"I was a PTA president, my kids were in Richmond city public schools, I felt like I really got an understanding of the makeup of the community," says Todd, who's ready to carry Scrap RVA into its new incarnation.

As might be expected, the transition has brought a mix of relief, nostalgia and glee to original members.

"It has been interesting, transitioning to an advisory board, after all our blood, sweat and tears," Wilson McKay says, recalling harried weekends of picking up unusual and heavy donations, like canvas rolls. "But it's all coming into sync now. Molly has been such a great caregiver for our baby nonprofit." S