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While watching his children color with crayons in a restaurant during a birthday dinner in 2001, Bryan Ware was suddenly hit with a question that consumed him: What happened to those packs of free crayons once the meal was over and the customers left?
After several hours of research at home, the Danville, California, manufacturing consultant found an answer that left him shocked and inspired to take action: More than 500,000 pounds of non-biodegradable restaurant and school crayons ended up in landfills every year.
“They’re thrown out after just one use for sanitary reasons because they can transport germs,” Ware, 43, tells PEOPLE. “I just knew there had to be a way to recycle them.”
In 2012, he came up with a solution, launching The Crayon Initiative, a nonprofit that melts down used crayons donated by restaurants and makes them into new crayons for children’s hospital art programs.
“During hospital stays, art therapy can help kids to cope with their illness,” says Ware, a married father of two sons, Nate, 11, and Brennan, 9. “Coloring is a way for them to communicate and get their emotions and feelings out. It’s one of the simplest and most creative ways out there for them to take a breather from the hospital environment.”
Thus far, Ware has signed up 400 restaurants and 100 schools in several western states to donate used crayons, which he melts down at home on his stove and portable induction cooktops with help from his sons and his wife, Marissa, a schoolteacher. The melted wax is then poured into molds to make new crayons.
“Each mold holds 96 crayons, so we can crank out about 1,000 crayons an hour,” he says. “I spend every spare hour now doing this. I hate to guess at how many hours I devote to this, but it’s probably 40 hours a week. It’s all worth it, though, just to see kids’ faces light up when they’re handed a new box of crayons.”
Ware’s idea is unique and enchanting, says Joanne Ordono, a certified child life specialist at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles.
“He is so invested in this endeavor and personally visits whenever he is in town,” Ordono tells PEOPLE. “Since therapeutic play is such a vital part of the healing process, these crayons help our patients cope with their disease by giving them tools to help express themselves through art. Children, teens and even parents can color away their fear and anxiety while at the same time personalizing their rooms. It’s magical.”
Restaurant owners who donate to Ware’s project are thrilled to finally have something to do with their young customers’ leftover crayons besides toss them in the trash.
“We go through a lot of crayons trying to keep our younger guests happy and entertained,” says Megan Jorgensen, sustainability manager for Snooze restaurants in Denver. “Since we partnered with Bryan, we’ve kept 1,400 pounds of crayons out of landfills and had them recycled into 8,375 new packets of crayons for children’s hospitals. I can’t wait to see what other innovative programs Bryan creates to better our environment.”
For now, Ware says he’s too busy stirring pots of wax in his kitchen to give much thought to future endeavors.
“My reward right now is when I stop by a children’s hospital and see kids giggling and coloring with some of our crayons,” he says. “It’s the coolest thing to see the joy in their faces as they use their imaginations to create something all their own. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”