Vanessa Barker and Taylor Willis met each other in preschool, but they didn’t realize it until Willis found a class photo at Barker’s house while at a sixth-grade sleepover in 1994.
A year later, they were seventh-graders in Blake Sills’ science class, and their love for the environment began. Willis later had him in high school environmental science, where she and Barker joined an environmentalist club. They started nurturing their love for the planet years ago, and that love has only grown.
Now, they’re running The Welman Project, a nonprofit that opened in 2015 with the mission of reusing materials for classrooms to prevent more waste in landfills.
“(Sills) was just so passionate about science and about teaching how to take care of the earth,” Willis said. “And that, even as students, we can make a big difference in our world.”
The Welman Project, named after Barker’s birth mother, tackles two big issues in the community: waste output and lack of resources in schools. It does this with creative reuse, Barker said.
“Our mission is to fill a classroom, not a landfill,” Barker said. “And we invite the community to take an active role in the success of our local classrooms, as well as making Fort Worth greener and cleaner and more sustainable.”
The Welman Project at 3950 W. Vickery Blvd. is a place teachers can browse for free supplies with no limit on how much they can take and how often they come. The space has all kinds of art supplies, office materials, fabric and many other options. Browsing the store, a teacher can find just about anything, from graduation tassels to toy airplane parts.
At the space, people volunteer to help around the store. One volunteer, Kathryn Albright, said she restocks shelves and helps with the community workshops. She also knows the founders well, having met them when they were in middle school.
Albright taught a musical theater program and met Barker and Willis there. The two were part of a youth leadership board at the theater in high school and participated in musicals.
She is not surprised at the path her students chose.
“They were both always innovators, always thinking, “How can we do something? How can we create something?’ They both were leaders in their peer group,” Albright said. “And they’re just smart thinkers.”
The community can donate time by volunteering, money, materials or by shopping at the store. The project also just launched a series of workshops for the public to learn about reusing. All proceeds go to helping provide free materials to teachers.
How to donate
The Welman Project accepts an array of donations, from art supplies to some furniture. While many items are accepted, some are not, such as mattresses. Before donating click here to see what items are prohibited.
Along with donating, people can make other decisions to help reduce their waste. Barker said one of her biggest pet peeves is how much waste holidays produce. A lot of donations are holiday decorations that could be reused, she said. More people can be eco-conscious in giving, such as gifting an experience instead of something that will create more waste, she added.
The city’s composting program is a great, cheap way to help the environment, Williams said. But it is not all on individual residents, she said, because legislation can have a big environmental impact
The city set a local example of this last year, when it donated surplus supplies and furniture to schools, Willis said.
Additionally, Barker said, offices contribute to a lot of waste and could make better decisions with supplies to reduce the amount they send to landfills. A new binder is not necessary for every presentation, and not everything needs to be printed and can instead be an email, she said.
The nonprofit is mostly funded by individual donors and foundations, Willis said. The pair try to stretch donor dollars by using donated items or reusing supplies in the space.
Before founding The Welman Project seven years ago, Barker worked in a variety of jobs, from an event project manager at the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” to an assistant teacher at a preschool. She quickly realized how the waste produced by multimillion dollar fashion shows starkly contrasted with the lack of supplies she experienced in a classroom.
“We were just scrounging for things like crayons,” Barker said about her school in California where she worked.
Reusing supplies for classrooms started as a hobby in her 20s. She would work with producers on jobs she’d had and would bring cargo vans with leftover supplies to campuses and ask if they wanted any, she said.
“(I would) go knock on some schools and be like, ‘I have 300 pounds of glitter. I’m not creepy. Would you like it for free?’” Barker, 38, said.
By the time she was in her 30s, Barker said, she was at a point where she wanted to move back to Fort Worth and make reusing supplies more than a hobby. Willis, 38, also was at a point where she wanted to give back to her community.
Willis was doing all sorts of jobs, she said. She learned video editing from her father and did freelance video work along with graphic design and web design. She went to cosmetology school, but she said it didn’t stick. But once she and Barker started working on The Welman Project, it all clicked.
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“We wanted to give back to the community that raised us and take this hobby and make it into something that could actually make an impact,” Barker said.
A new step for the nonprofit is to be part of the Transform 1012 N. Main Street project, which recently acquired a former KKK building to make it a center for art and healing. The Welman Project will have space in the building for a community maker space and to host workshops.
The two are seen as leaders in Fort Worth’s green movement, even if they might think it’s “weird” to be considered so, because they consider themselves just “two normal gals” who are working with their best friend on what they care about, Barker said.
James “Opie” Fair, who was a mentor for Barker and Willis when they participated in the Rising Tide Initiative business accelerator program in 2019, sees them as leaders in the city’s environmentalism.
“I know several people that I’ve known through other parts of my business, and when I mentioned Tayler and Vanessa, they automatically know who they are and what they’re driving for,” he said. “I absolutely see them as leaders. I think they work extremely well together. Their personalities are vastly different, but they work together so well.”
At first, Fair said, the women did not see themselves as a real company, but rather as two people with an idea about how to help teachers. He worked with them on setting goals and changing how they perceived The Welman Project to help it grow.
But what makes them special and helps them achieve their missions is their selflessness, Fair said.
“Not only are they dedicated to what they’re doing within their own company,” he said, “but they’re quick to offer to help and work and talk to others that are in similar situations that they’ve been in.”
Their passion and creativity also help them succeed, Albright said. They are both exceptional writers, she said, and Barker is hilarious and great at improv. All these skills helped them with creative problem-solving. They were able to look at a problem like classroom supplies and landfill waste and find a solution outside the box.
“They’re smart and they’re bright, and they just follow their desire to make a difference in the world,” Albright said. “And what a cool way they manifested that.”
Without community buy-in, it simply would not exist, Barker said. They can cite numbers on how much of an impact the nonprofit has made, but the biggest impact for Barker is creating a project that anyone can be part of to do something positive. The Welman Project gives people a chance to take small steps to help the city and environment.
“They’re getting an experience that is joyful, and I think we need that right now,” Barker said. “And that’s a lot on our team, or our tiny but mighty team of staff and volunteers that really make that experience happen.”
Willis added, “We have a lot of free stuff to give away, but it’s really about the feeling of community and about the teachers, getting to see them come in and just feel supported and cared about and valued for the work that they do. If we can do one thing in a day and that’s just enough to make a teacher feel a little bit more appreciated, then we’ve done our job.”
Vanessa Barker bio
Birthplace: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Moved to Fort Worth: 1983 at 6 months old
Family: Husband Travis Barker (not the drummer), daughter Joey June Barker, and a lot of amazing parents, nieces, nephews, sisters and in-laws
Education: FWISD K-12, Southwest High School class of ‘01, bachelor of arts in arts administration, cum laude from Emerson College
Work experience: Event project manager, New York Fashion Week & the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show”; a plethora of freelance production gigs from Neutragena commercials to film festivals to reality TV; assistant preschool teacher
Volunteer experience: Fort Worth Independent School District, Near Southside Inc.
First job: Merchandise team at the Fort Worth Zoo
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: 90% of being a leader is knowing how to listen; the other 10% is a combination of passion, determination, and a willingness to dive in first even if the water seems murky.
Best advice ever received: Measure twice, cut once.
Taylor Willis bio
Birthplace: Fort Worth
Family: Husband Steven Alford (also an indispensable original Welman employee), parents Gary and Susan Willis (the actual best parents ever), and a group of lifelong sisters at heart and their families (including Vanessa)
Education: Fort Worth ISD, Paschal High Class of ’01, Ogle School of Cosmetology
Work experience: Freelance video production and graphic design, home automation programming, hair styling, stage management, event production – finally figured out what I wanted to do when we started Welman.
Volunteer experience: Current board treasurer of Transform 1012 N Main Street, and tries to always heed the call whenever a fellow nonprofit pal sends out the bat signal
First job: Video editing, which she learned from my dad as a kid
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Do what feels right to you, not just what’s always been done. Also, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and have the skills you lack, then make sure you actually listen to them.
Best advice ever received: “No” is a complete sentence. (Still working on actually taking this advice, but I love it.)
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. 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.