Nicole Tilicki, second from right, and fellow Raytheon Leaders in Education Award winners for 2018 are among the thousands of local teachers who benefit from Tucson Supplies Teachers, an online school supplies drive that gives $50 gift cards to Office Depot/OfficeMax. Tucson Supplies Teachers is a program of the nonprofit Tucson Values Teachers.

Over the last decade, the largest school-supply drive in the region has gone virtual, with a stunning impact: More than $1 million in supplies have been donated to area teachers.

“We ask people to donate money online, and what we are able to do in turn through Tucson Supplies Teachers is to give teachers $50 gift cards to Office Depot/OfficeMax,” said Andrew Heinemann, chief executive officer of Tucson Values Teachers.

“Tucson Electric Power has been very generous in support of this program. Money that comes in is given right back to teachers so they have the flexibility to purchase what they need for their classrooms,” Heinemann said.

Tucson Values Teachers (TVT) is a local nonprofit launched by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and education leaders in 2008.

Since then, more than 10,000 teachers have benefited from Tucson Supplies Teachers and other programs and initiatives provided by TVT. Among these is a teacher card that provides discounts and special offers at more than 80 local businesses.

The organization also offers Teachers in Industry, a business-education partnership that places teachers in the workforce during the summer and offers options for professional development and/or a master or arts degree in teaching and teacher education; and Teacher Excellence Awards to spotlight and reward outstanding educators.

Tucson Supplies Teachers is intended to help end the need for teachers to pay for their own supplies. It has become standard for teachers to pay for basic supplies out of their own pockets, Heinemann said. He spent 10 years as a local classroom teacher in elementary and middle schools prior to transitioning into administration.

A 2018 study by the National Center of Education Statistics found that 94% of public school teachers reported spending their own money on notebooks, pens and other supplies during the 2014-15 school year without reimbursement. The average spent was $479.

“When a teacher gets a gift card in the mail for $50, you should see the smile that comes on their face. It just means so much to them ... every little bit helps. Teachers need so much more than this, and we want to give back to them,” Heinemann said.

“Obviously July and August are critical months at the start of school, but we can give gift cards to teachers throughout the school year. The more money we collect, the more we can give out,” said Heinemann, who saw the gift cards work for teachers when he was principal at Cross Middle School prior to joining Tucson Values Teachers.

Nicole Tilicki can attest to the value of Tucson Supplies Teachers.

She is a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Innovation Academy K-5 STEM School in the Amphitheater Public Schools district who received the Raytheon Leaders in Education Award in 2018.

Tilicki used her $50 gift card last year to purchase mechanical pencils for her students.

“Kids don’t like to write, but if you give a kid a cool pencil, it inspires them and makes them think that someone cares,” Tilicki said.

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“If I hadn’t had that gift card, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the pencils. They are $2 each and I had 29 kids in my class. I can tell you that with that gift card, all of those kids felt special for that moment, and most of the kids had that pencil at the end of the year.”

Additionally, Tilicki had each of her students use their mechanical pencils to write separate thank you notes to TVT, Office Depot/Office Max and other partners.

“We were able to exceed the standards for writing by having students write thank you notes, and at the same time, the students felt supported and understood that the community took care of them. That is huge,” Tilicki said.

Feeling supported goes a long way for students and teachers alike, said Tilicki, a mother of three who has been teaching for 28 years.

While the salary is challenging, Tilicki said that she has loved every day of her job.

“Most teachers are absolutely in love with what they are doing. They will go to the ends of the earth for a child, celebrate success and cry together when there is failure.”

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net