Mary Stumpp has met a lot of people driving "Carmella," a 1993 beat-up, caramel-colored Chevrolet pickup overflowing with garbage bags full of aluminum cans around Broad Ripple and other parts.
On her drives, the 51-year-old introduces herself as "The Can Lady," often abruptly pulling to the side of the road three or four times to pick up a stray can here and there before reaching the next stop on her route. She collects and recycles aluminum cans for her personal charitable cause, the Can Lady Project.
"I'm not worried about where my next meal is coming from," she said. "This is just my community service for all the times I didn't get caught -- and it suits my schedule."
Stumpp was prompted to action four years ago after a young neighbor told her about some kids who couldn't afford the fees for an overnight field trip to the Indianapolis Zoo.
Working for Broad Ripple Power & Lighting, where copper wire is recycled, and wanting to do something in which kids could participate, Stumpp said collecting and recycling aluminum cans to scrap for cash "just fell into place."
"With kids drinking soda pop, isn't it kind of ironic that you can take something that's so bad for you and turn it into something that's positive?" she said.
She raised $55 that first year. The next year, Stumpp met with Betsy Walker, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Center for Inquiry School 384. A contest was started to see who could collect the most cans. The result: $500 raised in four months.
Since starting the Can Lady Project, Stumpp has made more than $5,000. She distributes small grants to help local teachers buy classroom supplies, favoring projects that have a broad-base use. She is especially supportive of health and fitness, art and music, although math, science and technology items are also considered for grants.
"Instead of buying pencils and pens and things like that, I'd like to buy the quirky things," she said.
The Center for Inquiry has since stopped holding can-collecting contests, but still is a drop-off point for students and the community. Stumpp stops by on Fridays during the school year to collect.
"Her dream is to do great things for kids and to show them that one can can make a difference," Walker said.
The Center for Inquiry is the only school so far to apply for a Can Lady Project grant. Funds have ranged from $580 for two aquariums for a kindergarten class to $800 for 10 web cameras and seven flip video cameras for an information technology class.
One of the project's taglines: Recycling makes cents. "One can is worth less than 2 cents, but pretty soon you have 28 and then pretty soon you have a bag full," she said. "Then pretty soon you have a truck full, and then you're going to the scrap yard three days a week."
A truckload of aluminum is worth only about $73, compared to a barrel full of copper, worth $600, she said, but it all adds up.
The going rate for aluminum is 49 cents per pound, but because she brings in an average of 120 to 170 pounds of aluminum each time she visits the scrap yard, she gets an extra 5 cents a pound.
Stumpp has a goal of picking up 12 cans every day. "It makes the city look better and keeps my mind focused on what I'm doing," she said. "And I meet the nicest people."
The majority of the cans come from friends, neighbors and local businesses. She provided recycling bins to places such as the Broad Ripple Animal Clinic, Broad Ripple Power & Lighting Inc., Adorn Spa and Boutique, Cafe Patachou, Joy's House and The Sinking Ship.
"It's kind of funny," she said. "I'm the gray-haired old lady in with all the hipsters" at The Sinking Ship.
When her truck gets too full, she stores the bags of cans in her driveway until she makes her next trip to OmniSource on East 25th Street. Once in a while, she'll open her back gate and find some cans delivered by a neighbor.
"It's just a little grocery bag that I get, but every little bit helps," she said.
With the high price of gas, she doesn't see her main can-collecting route straying too far. But if someone had enough cans for her to pick up, she'd consider making the trip, she said.
She would also like to get more local events, businesses and schools around the city involved so more students can benefit from the Can Lady Project.
"You can't support your cost going out and getting cans yourself. You have to have people collecting for you," she said.
Doug Miller, owner of Adorn Spa and Boutique and its neighbor A Do Hair Design on North College Avenue, said it was a "no brainer" to collect cans for the project.
"How can you decline someone who is helping out a school while supplying the recycling bin and doing the collecting?" he said. "You just can't."
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