Reta Russell Houghton

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

Reta, 56, and her husband Frank, 66, are steeped in family traditions that began in the Avondale/Murray Hill area. They live in Avondale on Ingleside Avenue in his grandparents’ home (Louie and Francis Rocher), just three blocks from Edgewood Avenue Christian. The two Houghton children were the third generation to attend Ruth Upton Elementary on Dancy Street and their daughter also attended what was the former Lackawanna Elementary nearby on Lenox Avenue where Grandmother Rocher went to school in the 1920s. Reta, retired Navy and former teacher, now volunteers at The Teacher Depot where Lackawanna was located.

“We met in the Navy, have been married 29 years and in Jacksonville for 21 years. Frank is retired and after I retired in 2003 I started helping out at The Teacher Depot when it first opened about 16 years ago. It was first located in San Marco on Nira Street, then at John Gorrie Elementary and then moved to Lenox about five or six years ago. I’ve been involved on nearly a fulltime basis, every weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and sometimes a Saturday,” she said.

Houghton’s husband also volunteers to help her with Teacher Depot projects, especially building small (30 inches) to large (5 foot) totem authentic totem poles for teachers and media specialists to use in the classrooms or libraries every year. “It’s a huge project and we never know how they will turn out. Each is totally unique. The rule is we keep it traditional and authentic – Gator or Seminoles are okay – but absolutely no pink paint!” Houghton said.

The Depot collects and warehouses donated materials of all kinds given by individuals and businesses throughout Jacksonville. The items are then distributed for free to local teachers and schools. Donated items include art, office, paper and science supplies, furnishings, equipment, student incentives and an alphabet of miscellaneous, new or still-useful supplies. A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the Depot operates with one paid employee and dedicated volunteers. Approximately $20.5 million worth of supplies have been donated since the Depot opened in 1996. The donations become part of a valuable recycling program, going to good use by students and teachers instead of ending up at the city landfills, according to Houghton.

“We have community, church and civic groups come to volunteer, sorting and organizing donations of all kinds. They also watch the business section of the newspaper to see if a corporation is moving or closing,” she said. “When a large company moves, changes names or downsizes we are often able to salvage so many useful supplies such as pens, pencils, envelopes, office equipment or furniture. We also contact the Better Business Bureau, local companies and civic clubs to inform them that we can make great use of unwanted items that could be used by schools. Many of them now contact us with donations.”

The Depot holds open house dates when teachers are invited to come and shop through the supplies during three-hour time slots. Then teachers can pull their vehicles up around the Depot’s circular drive and volunteers will load their selected supplies, Houghton said.
“I have so much fun helping teachers find what they need and giving them ideas about what they can do with the craft and art materials. It’s like a big toy store,” she said. “I love to re-purpose and craft things or figure out what something could be used for. You have no idea what all I can make out of a toilet paper roll!”

Houghton is also an artist who volunteers to teach art classes at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. She believes that art is fundamental to education and that it enhances all learning. Providing teachers with creative ideas and art projects for their students gives her special joy and fulfillment.

“Cultural literacy and art are so important in learning. Art teaches perspective, sequence, analysis and how to basically solve a problem,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be difficult or perfect. It should just be fun and something everyone, student or adult can do. It may give students who struggle in academics, something they can do and enjoy with success.”

The Depot always needs volunteers and offers training and flexible schedules for volunteer jobs that last about an hour up to a day or longer.
“We have a 92-year-old volunteer who has helped out for years, so you are never too old to volunteer and there are all kinds of different jobs and projects to choose from whether it’s an individual or a group,” Houghton said.

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