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Jefferson Awards: Woman Helps Turn Trash Into Treasure

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Ann Marie Theilen – Jefferson Award Winner. (CBS)

Ann Marie Theilen – Jefferson Award Winner. (CBS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — For decades, artists and teachers have been discovering some unusual items at a place they call a San Francisco hidden treasure. The woman behind the popular resource is this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

If you’ve got an idea, Ann Marie Theilen has heaps of material. For 35 years, artists and teachers such as Chris Giorni have scrounged around her San Francisco nonprofit, SCRAP, looking to turn someone else’s trash into their treasure.

“Walking through SCRAP is like walking through cobwebs of the ancient mines and opportunities for imaginations to run wild,” Giorni said.

Back in 1976, when Theilen founded SCRAP, people laughed. She was working with the San Francisco Arts Commission, and needed an inexpensive way to provide 140 artists with supplies for teaching. So she asked businesses to donate stuff they’d otherwise dump.

“I was considered a fool at the time,” she remembered. “Because we’re into consuming in America. We consume, we don’t re-use.”

From SCRAP’s warehouse, nestled in San Francisco’s industrial neighborhood, Theilen takes in 200 tons of donated stuff a year that would otherwise pile in landfills. She’s helped make “reuse” and “recycle” household words among dozens of people who shop SCRAP each day. And she has helped launch similar sites as far away as Tokyo and Paris.

“Creativity is my philosophy,” Theilen said thoughtfully. “I want not only to see artists not only buy the material they think would be applying – the best – but to go further in seeking the material.”

One seamstress turns bargain-priced fabric scraps into dresses she donates to African girls. And Chris Giorni shows what he buys for cheap to teach science to 25,000 San Francisco kids at Tree Frog Treks.

“This was a face shield that was used for a dental office,” Giorni explained. “We were able to buy hundreds of them for the kids. They put them on to protect their face. Then we did film canister rockets. You put the baking soda with vinegar. We snap it, lock it, flip it, pop it. You got the canister here. We got the canister here.”

Tuan Tran hunts for unique items at SCRAP twice a week, fashioning old telephone wire into women’s purses, and even dresses! He said Theilen inspires him:

“She is ahead of her time. She is a pioneer of this. It’s amazing. It’s an honor to know her,” Tran said.

Theilen added, “The joy is to see the projects – what they make of it.”

So for providing a reusable source for creative minds for 35 years, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Ann Marie Theilen.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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