Nonprofit SCARCE gives trash a useful future

First in an occasional series

For Kay McKeen, finding new homes for used items isn't just diverting waste from landfills, it's a rescue mission.

At McKeen's environmental education nonprofit in Addison, cases of broken instruments sit waiting for repair, boxes of untouched corporate t-shirts are piled in the back walkway, and countless used textbooks neatly line the shelves.

It's chaos with a capital 'K,' McKeen joked.

The nonprofit is called SCARCE, which stands for School & Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education. There, things many people would toss in the garbage without a second thought are given another chance at a useful future.

Plastic bread chips are sent to Indianapolis to be melted down and remade into hangers. Pill bottles go to an emergency relief organization near Cincinnati. Plastic bags go to the local Jewel-Osco for recycling.

SCARCE works with around 300 organizations each year, the locations ranging from her hometown of Wheaton to across the globe. Boxes are labeled with bright yellow signs declaring their destinations: DuPage County Jail, Lions Club, Lurie Children's Hospital, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Ukraine.

For McKeen, who has been building connections with these organizations since SCARCE took off in 1990, everything from broken crayons to mesh plastic grocery bags has value. You just have to know who needs what — and that's just what McKeen is best at.

“One of her gifts is instead of seeing the problem, she sees the solution,” McKeen's daughter Bev Jaszczurowski said.

Jaszczurowski has worked alongside her mom at SCARCE since 2009. The two are as thick as thieves, as the saying goes. They finish each other's sentences, brainstorm paths for reuse, and keep SCARCE's doors open. At $18,200 a month just for rent, that's no easy task.

“I always say I've been roped into all her shenanigans, all of them,” Jaszczurowski said, adding warmly that “not everybody can work with their family this closely.”

“She has skills I don't have,” McKeen said of her daughter.

“And vice versa,” Jaszczurowski added.

The family's care for the environment can be traced back to McKeen's parents and grandparents, who she said never wasted a thing. From an early age, McKeen was taught to compost, plant trees, and “never hurt anything.” Spiders were never crushed in her house — they were gently given a ride back outside.

In the 1950s, the family didn't call what they did taking care of the environment.

“It wasn't about the environment. That wasn't a word used. It was that you didn't hurt anything and you didn't waste,” McKeen said. “My dad was all about forests. His sister was all about forests. My Irish grandma was all about forests. My Polish grandma was all about planting and not wasting. I've always said I've been the luckiest girl. It's how you grew up.”

McKeen officially stepped into the environmental ring in the 1980s, when she fought against the federal government's spraying of certain pesticides in its campaign to slow the spread of spongy moths.

It was through this effort that McKeen found herself behind a desk at Wheaton City Hall as a volunteer. She went on to help build Wheaton's first recycling center alongside her husband in 1986. Today, she sits on the city's Environmental Improvement Commission.

At SCARCE, McKeen is focused on strengthening the nonprofit's wide-ranging initiatives.

The organization's flagship program allows teachers to come and fill boxes with school supplies at the price of $8 a box. With the help of more than 70 volunteers, every crayon, marker, binder, textbook and science beaker is screened for quality and safety.

“There's not a binder up there that's not good enough for my grandkids,” McKeen said during a tour of the space. “There's a dignity in having nice school supplies.”

The nonprofit runs environmentally focused programming for teachers across DuPage County, such as composting workshops, watershed training, and graduate credit courses. Several classes and events are also available to residents and businesses, including workshops on how to repair household items.

Residents also have the opportunity to shop at SCARCE-LY Used Books & Records, a section of the building the nonprofit keeps open to the public.

McKeen said there's one, big dream that she and her daughter hope to realize: “I wish there were more places like SCARCE,” she said.

“Do you know how many people have an instrument in the closet that nobody's playing that could help a kid?” Jaszczurowski said. “We are a nanodrop on the tip of the iceberg of what could be rescued. This is not rocket science. It's space. You need space, and you need to be a little bit crazy.”

“And it's relationship building because you don't get to know who needs what and who has what without talking to people,” McKeen added. “It's really important to talk to people. You have to listen.”

• This story is one in a series of profiles of suburban residents who play an extraordinary role in protecting the environment. If you know someone whose efforts deserve to be recognized, send your recommendation to Jenny Whidden at Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

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