Ruth’s Reusable Resources is a teacher’s dream: a whole warehouse filled with vital classroom supplies, from paper and pens and pencils to three-ring binders. Ruth Libby started the organization 20 years ago after getting requests for supplies from the teachers of her three sons, who were then in elementary school in Scarborough. Schools pay a per-student fee of $3 to join and teachers can get what they need. The public can also shop, mostly for items that have been donated but aren’t used by schools. To date, the nonprofit has given away $50 million worth of goods.

Q. How did this all get started?

A. One of the teachers in the Eight Corners Primary School sent home a note asking us to save meat trays and egg cartons and that sort of thing. I had some of that, but I also sent a note to my mother and she gave it to her family in Waterville and to people she worked with at Unum, so we really started filling up the art room in Eight Corners school. And then I read an article about a woman who was saving manufacturing cast-offs – leftover pieces of foam and metal and wood for schools. I thought, “I could do (that).” There was a company in Biddeford that was recycling paper and had a machine to cut the spines off of books – at that time, they couldn’t recycle the fronts and the backs of books, but the teachers would love (the spines) to make new books out of them. So, I would go in and get those kinds of things put them in the cellar of my house. Finally a teacher told the school department about what I was doing and suggested they give me some space, which was good because sometimes (the teachers) were picking up my Christmas stuff and I would have to say, “That stays!”

Q: How did you expand it beyond a local effort?

A: After I got more space, I wrote Unum a letter and told them who I was and what I did. I said I’d like to have all the paper clips and pencils they have when somebody leaves. Maybe a year later, they (invited me in) and showed me a room with pallets and pallets of stuff left behind when people left jobs or moved out of state – stuff just dumped into boxes. I took my oldest son and we sorted through hundreds of boxes and collected a tall pile of white three-ring binders – those are gold to teachers. We ended up with an entire tractor-trailer worth and we put it in our space. And then Unum came back and said we love what you do and we want to pay you to do what you’re doing. They gave me a startup grant for the first couple of years, and (asked that) by the third year, we be self-sustaining. By our third year, we were charging schools a dollar a student (to be members).

Q: How did you get into your current, larger space on Blueberry Lane in Portland?

A: We were in the old Bessey School in Scarborough for probably close to 11 years when Scarborough (officials) came to me and said, “Look, we’re selling the building for senior citizen housing,” This (current) building was on the market – Unum was selling it for $1.6 million. At the time, I might have had a $79,000 budget. So, we kept looking. We had about three months left before we had to move and I called up one of the people we knew at Unum and said, “You’ve been looking to sell a building for a while and we have to be out of here. Do you think you would sell it to me? A few weeks later, they said yes, they would sell it for $635,000.

Unum also went to their bank and said, “Look, this is who she is and what she does and is there any chance you can help her with a mortgage?” and (the bank) came back and said they would give us a mortgage for $400,000 if we could raise the $235,000. We met with Gov. (John) Baldacci and he said, “Let’s get in touch with the commissioner of education – I’m sure there are little amounts left here and there we can work with.” And they came up with the whole $235,000 as a grant. We’ve been here since 2007.

Q: How do your finances work?

A: The money that comes in here, 85 percent of it is the school memberships; they pay $3 per student or a minimum of $500. It’s not enough money to pay the people we have (working) and the mortgage and the utilities. But we have volunteers and we write grants. We can recycle and get paid for things like metal and cardboard.

Q: You’re about to head into your busiest time, with schools starting in the next few weeks. What do they teachers look for when they go into Ruth’s Reusable Resources?

A: This Saturday when we open, they will all come in looking for 8-by-11 paper and three-ring binders and that’s like 7,500 binders in one day. Those binders have been coming in all summer, thankfully. And pocket folders, pencils and pens, crayons, basic school supplies and office supplies. We also get staplers and tape dispensers.

Q: How about the public store?

A: You pay for the items, and they start from a penny and go up. Sometimes they’re things that aren’t bound for a classroom, like vintage books or housewares. There’s a lot of kids’ stuff, and we put textbooks in there for home-schoolers. We try to make sure we put some of the educational materials in the store for home-schoolers, day cares and preschools. And manufacturing cast-offs; we try to keep the foam and wood and plastic things in that store.

Q: Where do the donations come from?

A: All over the country, but one of the toughest things for us is that even though the product is free, we have to pay for shipping. So propane (to heat the warehouse) and shipping are the biggest expenses we have. Once a year we have a principals-only new furniture day. There’s a catalog company with stuff that they’re no longer selling and they donate it to us and other stores like us … We just got a tractor-trailer, the third of eight, and it’s all school supplies, but it’s costing me $3,800 a trailer. There are four coming that are full of furniture and two more of school supplies, that’s 14 tractor-trailers and it’s all new stuff and what the schools really want.

So many people think it’s just me still saving egg cartons, but it looks like the warehouse scene in Indiana Jones, with the Ark of the Covenant in a box in a huge warehouse full of boxes.

Q: Are you shocked at how it’s taken off from that simple start, saving egg cartons?

A: I’ve always known that what I’m doing is a really a needed thing. It was going to make sense for everybody, but I never realized it would be this big.

I could never keep doing it if I wasn’t doing it from the heart, because it’s physically and mentally exhausting. But I’m doing the best I know how. In 20 years, we’ve given away more than $50 million worth of stuff.