What's Up South Texas!: Woman transforms recyclables into art for others

SAN ANTONIO – One woman’s struggle to find materials for her art class has led to her starting a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting reusable materials that can be utilized in art rooms for teachers.

Mary Elizabeth Cantu started off young as a creative problem solver.

“I went into undergrad wanting to be Indiana Jones so I see everything sort of as an adventure and my parents were just very kind and let me find out for myself that Indiana Jones takes a different form in human life,” said Cantu.

She decided to use that same energy in art.
“In 2010-2011, I was promoted to art education in San Antonio but I realized that I had nothing,” said Cantu. “I was given zero dollars for materials. I had a lovely desk but no means I thought to do my job.”

Cantu began connecting to people who pointed her in the right direction.

“I went to Plastic Supply and I told them I needed some materials for art activities,” said Cantu. “I asked ‘What do you guys have that we could use?’ So then they gave me things that filled up the back of my car and they told me to come back with a U-Haul. They had so much left over from inventory of scraps and things they couldn't sell or resell and at that point I was like this is a cause greater than me."

That summer, she and others who supported her collected hundreds of pounds of materials that went to 100 teachers in over 20 school districts.

“It took us about nine months to do this event,” said Cantu. “After that giveaway, we paused in 2016 to start fundraising and became a 501 C 3 to start raising money for grants and to have our own reuse center which is definitely needed in San Antonio.”

Cantu then realized that these efforts were actually beneficial to the environment.

“We see a lot of trash and the impact on our environments and are ecosystems on the beaches and the oceans,” said Cantu. “Tons and tons of plastic and materials and microfibers and all sorts of ugly things.”

She said she got a major eye-opener when she went to Hawaii.

“We visited organizations who without their permission is having tons of materials polluting their oceans and beaches,” said Cantu. “It is incredible that things in Hawaii wash ashore come from Japan and other places because you can see where they are from on the labels.”

So far, Cantu said they have successfully diverted 15 tons of reusable materials  from the landfill since 2011.

“Knowing that I, Mary started with some stuff in her backseat that nobody wanted and now with a fantastic team and board around me can divert tons of materials just like that, is amazing,” said Cantu.

The organization consists of 14 educators who are full-time teachers. They also have apprenticeships for people interested in helping with their artistic efforts before they come on board.

“After that first giveaway, all of them asked what is next? They wanted to know what to do with what so we created programs to teach people how to do art with the preloved materials,” said Cantu.

They have participated in festivals, presentations in classrooms and even afterschool events.
Cantu said their goal now is to raise enough funds to make a reuse center as they will have a better place to store items that have been donated.

“We receive a lot of things,” said Cantu. “Some items we cannot take such as rusty razors, dangerous items, electronics, clothes or cardboards. We think those things are just as valuable so have a list of places where people can donate those things that we don’t take.”

There is also a list on their website, volunteer@sparepartssa.org, that shows what items they do accept. Items like office supplies or thrift kind of things.

“I come from a family who lived on a farm where everything was looked at as a resource and a means to use or repurpose,” said Cantu. “This is a normal thing for me. I don’t mean to be cliché or corny but it is just really great when you find your purpose in life.”

Cantu’s adventurous ambition to turn someone else’s trash into artistic treasure while helping the environment is a great resource for What’s Up South Texas.

“Imagination is contagious and imagination, when it is expressed, is courageous I think too,” said Cantu.

If you know someone like Cantu who is making a difference in the South Texas community or who has a unique story, send us your tips. Contact Japhanie Gray on Facebook or @JGrayKSAT on Twitter. You can also send your tips to KSAT 12 & KSAT.com on Facebook.

About the Author

Japhanie Gray joined 10 News as an anchor in March 2022.

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