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A Line of Sturdy Crayons Made From Discarded Colors Is Brightening the Lives of Young Hospital Patients

Being a patient at a hospital can be a scary experience for little ones. There are lots of doctors and nurses crowding the room, moments without loved ones around, and pain that can appear without warning. So imagine what a relief it must be to have a soothing way to forget where you are, even for just a few hours. That was Bryan Ware’s goal when he started his nonprofit, The Crayon Initiative (TCI). 

Ware and his California-based organization collect crayons from anyone who will donate them. The group then melts them down and turns them into brand-new crayons for sick children in hospitals around the country. “Crayons themselves are a powerful tool in that everybody knows how to use them,” Ware explains in a video on TCI’s YouTube channel. “It starts with opening the box… and you get the smell of the crayon, and you don’t have to explain to them what to do with this tool. They just pick it up and start coloring. Crayons seem to have that way with everybody, that it either takes them back to a childhood memory.”

But these aren’t your average box of Crayolas. Ware spent a lot of time experimenting with the design of his crayons. He knew he wanted a triangular shape for his mold, because it would create crayons that were easier for kids to hold. So he built several 3D models, tested them with kids, and consulted with an occupational therapist to settle on the perfect shape. The result was a bigger, thicker writing utensil that’s harder to break and won’t roll off the hospital table.

donate used crayons

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Crayon Initiative)

“Most of the time, these kids are alone in their room,” Ware told “If a crayon rolls on the floor, they’re out of luck until the next person comes through on their rounds and can pick it up for them — which could be hours. They’re obviously sick, but [if they’re] ‘healthy enough to be unattended’ for a little while… this child could be alone for a couple hours [while doctors are busy elsewhere]. Obviously they have their buttons and their intercoms [and] if there’s a problem, [doctors] can be there, but dropping a crayon on the floor is not worthy of that intercom call.”

Every hero needs an origin story, so what’s Ware’s? During a family dinner at a restaurant, Ware learned the school where his wife taught had cut the budget for its art program. “That was unacceptable to me, and I wanted to find a way to give back to the arts,” he told us. Initially, the plan was to donate crayons to his local school, but Ware realized he’d be better serving the community by donating to the thousands of sick children in hospitals nearby. And his background as the founder of WareWorks, a consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses work more efficiently, equipped him with the ideal skillset to design his own crayon.

So in 2011, Ware and his family started separating crayons by color in their backyard and melting them down in the kitchen. These days, TCI has dozens of volunteers to help out with the color sorting, but the process of making the crayons is still the same. Volunteers gather for team-building events and sorting days where they divide crayons into 10 different colors. “We say ‘Blue is blue, don’t overthink it. Green is green.’ If it’s any shade of blue, it’s blue.” 

Next comes the actual melting process. “Originally we tried to figure out how to peel [the wrappers] off, [but then we we thought] ‘What happens if we put it all in?’ And it worked.” So in go the crayons, wrappers and all, to be melted. Ware and his volunteers pour the molten crayons through a strainer to remove the paper before transferring the leftover liquid to the molds.

Because the wax shrinks as it cools, volunteers have to overfill the mold. That’s why you’ll see them scraping excess wax off the top of the molds if you watch a video of the process (which you can do below). Then, they push down on the lever and 96 freshly made crayons pop up, ready to be packaged.

Additionally, TCI donates the wrapping paper from their crayons to Duraflame, a brand of fire log (aka a manufactured log that’s designed to burn more efficiently than regular firewood). Duraflame adds the leftover paper to its logs — so you could actually be burning some of Ware’s donated crayons come winter. “We wanted to make sure we found a home for pretty much all our components,” Ware said. 

crayon initiative

(Photo Credit: The Crayon Initiative)

TCI has donated almost 146,000 boxes of crayons to more than 240 hospitals in all 50 states to date. The best part is “knowing that we brought a smile to their face inside a world that most of us can’t even identify with,” Ware said in an interview with Southern California Public Radio. “That’s the good feeling.”

But Ware’s aspirations aren’t limited to children within the US. “We’ve been asked, literally all around the world, to come and do this” — South America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia are all on the list. 

So what can you do to help? Spread the word! If you’re at a restaurant and you notice crayons being tossed, let management know that they can donate their leftovers. People who live in California’s Bay Area can sign up to volunteer at a color-sorting event, while out-of-staters can collect and sort crayons on their own, and then mail them to TCI at 155 Railroad Ave. Suite E, Danville, CA 94526. Lastly, there’s the option to leave a good old-fashioned donation, which will help cover TCI’s overhead costs.

To learn more about The Crayon Initiative and how you can help, head over to their website.

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