The scale of the problems facing the world — poverty, hunger, conflict, climate change — can be daunting, even demoralizing. It’s easy to slip into apathy, thinking nothing you do could have an impact.
Sometimes, though, the answer is to think smaller — perhaps looking at something in a different way, seeing value where others see trash, or nothing at all.
Here are three Pittsburgh-based organizations that are taking on small-scale problems, and having a big impact:
No Crayon Left Behind
Writing for television and movies isn’t a job you give up easily.
That was Emily Skopov’s main gig, until recently. She wrote for beloved cult sci-fi shows like “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Farscape,” specializing in strong, complex female characters. She relished the raucous give-and-take of the writer’s room in L.A., and kept doing it after moving to Pittsburgh in 2010.
Most people wouldn’t give this up for a box of crayons. Or even a million boxes of crayons. However, the night of her son’s 7th birthday at Red Robin in Cranberry, a box of crayons changed her life.
“My son didn’t use the crayons he was given, and the waiter said, ‘No, we don’t take them back,’” says Skopov. “I realized all these new crayons — they only give out new crayons — they’re getting rid of them. In a few minutes, I said, ‘Well, I’m sure I can find places who can use them.’ I asked the restaurant manager, ‘If I can find places who will take them, will you set them aside?’”
Once she committed to the idea, she found it hard to stop. Restaurants saw only garbage, but she saw something valuable.
She started No Crayon Left Behind, which has “rescued” millions of crayons from the landfill in a few short years. They’re sent to more than 20 countries overseas, and all over the U.S.
Skopov has done most of the work herself, so far — with a little help.
“My kids were my first volunteers,” says Skopov. “Many evenings were spent sorting out broken and damaged ones, and putting them in rubber bands. Then, my daughter’s friends and her soccer and volleyball team [volunteered]. You don’t have to sell kids on this idea. The adults are harder, but kids get it right away.”
Not every restaurant liked the idea.
“I’ve had some horrid responses,” says Skopov. “I’m not asking for money or donations. I’m asking you to give me your trash. People said no, all the time. It was incredibly dispiriting. I’ve worked in restaurants, and I know the fast pace. When someone says, ‘Children are not our priority’ — I can’t even pretend to know what motivates them.”
Enough did get it, however. Eventually, after lots of long drives all over Western PA, word spread, and it took off. Skopov balanced writing and doing No Crayon Left Behind successfully for a while.
Then she decided to run for public office.
The problem was that she couldn’t do it all, and her kids wouldn’t let her quit No Crayon Left Behind. That left film and TV writing to get the ax.
No Crayon Left Behind was at the point where she needed to hire staff, and take the next step — perhaps even collecting crayons all over the U.S., instead of just Western PA.
“Any place that’s ever called us, we’ve literally never said no,” says Skopov. “We don’t even question whether you really need them or not. If you take the trouble to find us, you really are watching every dollar. If you take the time to ask for us, you need them. That’s all the vetting we do.”
Off The Floor
One of the hardest things to get rid of is furniture. Used furniture can be difficult to sell, or even throw away.
But a small North Side-based nonprofit called Off The Floor, gets furniture (literally) off the floors of people who don’t need it any longer, and onto the floors of people who do.
“We help a lot of folks who have recently transitioned from a housing crisis, or living on a couch,” says Angela Elliston, donation coordinator for Off The Floor Pittsburgh, the Furniture Bank of Southwest PA. “It’s really hard to get back into your own space if you’ve been homeless.