When the winter storm pummeled Texas in February, no one could guarantee whether Barb the Bus would start in the cold.

The repurposed school bus, painted like a kaleidoscope and named after the woman who helped fund Barb’s purchase, typically brought recycled school supplies to teachers throughout Tarrant County. That day in February, brimming with jugs supplied by Vandervoort’s milk company, the bus delivered clean water to people who couldn’t access their own.

“Barb got called into action,” said Vanessa Barker, a co-founder of The Welman Project, the nonprofit for which Barb serves as an official vehicle. 

One of Barb the Bus’ “glamour shots,” according to Taylor Willis, co-founder of The Welman Project. The Welman Project is one of the newest additions to The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever. (Courtesy photo | The Welman Project)

This sort of collaborative, creative reuse is the hallmark of both The Welman Project and the holiday catalog that recently added the nonprofit to its list of local charities. The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever’s vision is, after all, to repurpose giving: from spending money on knickknacks to investing in nonprofits who serve Fort Worth.

Now, in its 14th year and its second issue during the pandemic, the catalog offers people connection in a disconnected season, Barker said. Specifically, the catalog shares the stories of nonprofits like The Welman Project around Tarrant County and allows people to donate to or fund someone else’s donation to the nonprofit of their choice. 

“In a world where you feel helpless,” Barker said, “here’s a small way you can help.”

The cover of the 2021 catalog. (Courtesy photo | The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever)

‘A purple gorilla with eight arms’

In the winter of 2006, Fort Worth entrepreneur Elliot Goldman and his wife, Heather, sat in their living room surrounded by catalogs. 

“There must have been 60 catalogs,” Goldman said. “And I said to my wife, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was one where we could shop for great holiday things where we can make an impact in the community?’ And my wife says to me, ‘Why don’t you start one?’” 

Goldman did. He gathered the leaders of nearly 10 local nonprofits and pitched them the idea. 

“It was like a purple gorilla with eight arms,” he said. “I can tell you about a purple gorilla with eight arms, but until you see one, you’re like, ‘Is it furry? Is it smooth? Where are the eight arms located?’ I actually had to print a catalog to show them conceptually.”

The name, he said, comes from a conversation he had with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell told Goldman he liked to name military operations something he wanted to hear over and over again, Goldman remembers. 

Goldman wanted to hear people call the catalog ‘the greatest gift catalog ever.’ “And let’s be honest,” he said. “It is the greatest gift catalog ever.”

The catalog launched in 2007 and serves as a marketing tool for the nonprofits listed within its pages. People can access it online or in print — the latter is available in hundreds of locations like car washes and doctor’s offices throughout the county, Goldman said. This year, the catalog spotlights 22 nonprofits, its largest number yet. 

How to use the catalog

The catalog works like this: People can purchase a gift card for an amount of their choosing for a friend or family member. In exchange, they can receive a 100% tax deduction for their purchase, as well as a print catalog to give to the recipient. That person can then thumb through the catalog and choose which nonprofit will receive the money from the gift card. 

Finally, the nonprofit will match each donation at least through $5,000, according to Christine Jones, executive director of The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever. So, if a person donates a $50 gift card to The Welman Project through the catalog, The Welman Project will ultimately receive $100 because of that donation. 

That added match can make quite a difference, especially during the pandemic, Jones said: “It’s one of the best ways to give in Tarrant County.”

People can also donate directly to a nonprofit or multiple nonprofits through the catalog’s website. The value of the catalog comes in its connectivity and convenience, Goldman said.

“It is a succinct way to get information about great organizations that (shoppers) might never have heard of,” he said. For smaller nonprofits, too, the catalog serves as a marketing tool they might not otherwise be able to afford. 

As it did with most businesses, the pandemic required the catalog to pivot online. In 2020, fewer print copies went out, Jones said. Instead, her team embraced Venmo and the QR code, posting fliers with access to both around town.

More donations came through the catalog in 2020 than in 2019, Jones said, though it’s hard to quantify how many total donations the catalog inspires. Donors may skip the catalog altogether and donate directly to the nonprofits listed within it, and Jones may never hear about it. And that’s OK, she said. The main purpose of the catalog is to connect people to organizations. 

‘The Food Bank of stuff’

For The Welman Project, one of two new nonprofits included in the catalog in 2021, connection is central. The nonprofit formed in 2016 to address two issues: corporate waste and inadequate resources in school. Their motto is “fill a classroom, not a landfill.”

For example, they’ve connected a science teacher in Northwest ISD with a classroom’s worth of surplus boots from the Dallas Zoo, Barker said. Now, she and her students can tromp safely around creeks, taking samples. 

The project’s headquarters, on Vickery Boulevard in Fort Worth, is a menagerie of old things remade: egg shells turned to ornaments, gas cans turned to ukuleles, bundles of fabric and paper and a rescue dog named Eugene. (After the Canadian actor Eugene Levy, Barker’s co-founder Taylor Willis said — they have the same eyebrows.)

“This is the Food Bank of stuff,” Goldman said about The Welman Project. 

Barker and Willis call the front of the building, which serves as a retail store that sells recycled materials for the community, the “Curiosity Shop.” Farther in, the building offers a warehouse brimming with school supplies that teachers can shop for free; on average, teachers don’t spend $330 there, Willis said. Finally, there’s the makerspace, where teachers can bring their students to workshop. Barb the Bus is parked sentinel out front. 

People who thumb or scroll through The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever can now fund a teacher’s experience within those spaces — even Barb. A $250 donation will send Barb, brimming with supplies, to a teacher’s school.

It’s too soon to tell how the nonprofit’s membership in the catalog will affect them, Willis said. But being included along with the other nonprofits is itself a victory, she said.  

For her, The Welman Project and The Greatest Gift Catalog Ever just fit.

“We love that the gift catalog is encouraging people to support their community and give gifts of helping others rather than buying a physical present,” she said.

“We’re both centered around joy.”

Javier Rivera Cordero, who is a senior at Northwest High School and a Scripps Howard Foundation Emerging Journalists intern at the Fort Worth Report, contributed to this story. 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....

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