Bryan Ware started The Crayon Initiative in order to help children battling terrible illness find colorful ways to heal.
Sometimes, big ideas come in tiny packages. That’s true for Bryan Ware, the founder of the nonprofit, The Crayon Initiative, which recycles the crayons children use at restaurants to give to children in need.
Ware, who has a background in manufacturing and packaging, was out to dinner with his family one night when he took notice of a box of crayons on the table. The restaurant provided them and his boys were using them to color on the paper tablecloth. There was nothing unusual about either of those things. Still, seeing the crayons sparked something in Ware.
“My kids were five and seven, so we had gone through many crayons by then,” Ware tells Guideposts.org. “So why that evening I said, ‘What can we do with these crayons?’ I don't know, but that was kind of where the original idea came from.”
Ware knew that most of the crayons at restaurants get thrown away after their first use because of sanitary concerns. While the wax of a crayon is easy to clean and doesn’t hold many germs, the paper wrapping is a different story. Rather than potentially contaminating their customers and facing lawsuits, restaurants choose to just chuck the crayons and buy new packs instead.
“It's not a gamble they're willing to take,” Ware explains. “Almost all of these restaurants now, especially the bigger chains, are just throwing them away. We now try to teach them to pack them back up and send them [to us].”
Convincing the restaurants to hand over their used crayons was one thing, but Ware needed to know where and how he could deliver the coloring utensils to kids who needed them. After speaking with a friend who worked as a child life specialist at the University Of San Francisco Medical Center, Ware decided to work with hospitals in the area to bring the crayons to their young patients.
Child life specialists help sick children cope with the uncertainty of their circumstances. Whether it’s helping families make sense of a diagnosis, holding a child’s hand during surgery, or providing food, toiletries and clothing to family members forced to commute hours in order to receive care, specialists’ sole job is to bring comfort and reassurance to kids battling terrible illness, but they need help too.
“They're on their own to fundraise and get crayons and paper and coloring books and whatever else to occupy these children,” Ware explains.
So, he got to work. After creating his nonprofit in 2013, Ware spent a year testing out molds for his crayons. He knew he wanted them to be universally useable, finally settling on a triangular shaped design that was easy to grip and wouldn’t role off bedside tables or hospital trays.
He also knew that the crayons couldn’t be covered in paper wrapping in order to protect the children from germs.
“We played for months,” Ware says, describing how difficult it is to extract paper wrappings that have been melted into the crayon wax. He tried soaking the crayons in hot water and soap, soaking them in vinegar, and pulverizing them in blenders. Finally, Ware decided to heat the crayons, throwing colors into separate pots, melting the wax, picking out the paper and then straining them further into mason jars which he would use to pour the wax into his molds.
Still a lengthy process but one that works and ensures the children’s safety.
“We had an independent lab test incoming crayons that we bought at a store and our crayons after they'd been boiled and made into a new mold, and they showed that we were as good, if not better, than store bought crayons,” Ware says.
Ware wanted to make sure each kid got a full set of colors after discovering that, because of budgeting issues, most only received one or two during their stay. He created packs with eight crayons -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, and brown.
“The first feedback that we got was, ‘These are awesome because the kids can make superheroes and fairies.’ They don't get one or two colors. They get a whole range of colors, and each kid gets the full eight pack of crayons,” Ware says.
So far, The Crayon Initiative has donated over 20,000 packs of crayons to 38 hospitals in 17 states, but it’s the impact, not the numbers, that matter to Ware.
“It's as important as the medicines that these children are getting because it gives them that escape,” Ware says of the crayons. He recently received a photo from a family whose daughter had unfortunately passed away.
“It was a picture of a plastic pencil box, and it's what she carried around throughout the hospital,” Ware says. “Whatever appointment she had to go to, this was her little box of stuff to keep her happy, and our crayons were at the top of it.”
These kinds of stories make the effort all worthwhile to Ware.