It started on sales trips to the Deep South.
Faye Clarke, a regional vice president for food giant Aramark, was shocked by the wretched poverty in some of the schools she called on. Her husband, who sometimes joined her on the trips, also was devastated by what they saw.
"I started crying," said Frank Clarke, a retired radio advertising salesman. "I couldn't believe in the United States of America this could exist."
When Faye Clarke retired in 1991, the couple decided to forsake the more traditional pursuits of retirement. They began spending their time and money on education--putting up $350,000 from Faye's retirement fund to purchase supplies for impoverished rural schools.
They created the Alabama-Mississippi Education Improvement Project Inc., later renamed Educate the Children Foundation, to find books and other materials for schools. It soon became a distribution network, recycling surplus materials from educational publishers and discards from wealthier districts. Reference books, paper, pencils and even school furniture began to pour in.
"Things came here by the truckload," said Eli Seaborn, superintendent of the Lowndes School District in the Montgomery, Ala. suburbs, which was one of the beneficiaries. "I don't know how they got those things."
Before long, the couple had opened warehouses in Montgomery, New Orleans, Atlanta and Grenville, Miss.
"That's when costs began to mount up," Frank Clarke said. "It was sort of going like topsy. We didn't realize we were setting up an organization."
The couple continued to spend from their own pockets until Faye Clarke, the family financial manager, told her husband, "We can't do this anymore."
At a crossroads, the fledgling organization found a benefactor.
Thanks to an introduction to John Walton, heir to the WalMart discount chain, they obtained a multiyear grant from the Walton family foundation.
"We look on them as the second harvest of education," said Stewart Springfield, Walton Foundation chief operating officer.
After longtime family ties brought the Clarkes back to Southern California a couple of years ago, they continued their work from a donated office in the Huntington Beach headquarters of a medical supplier called Vascular Logic.
So far, their recycling has provided schools--mostly in Los Angeles--20,000 copies of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in comic book form, a gift from a publisher who had the title misspelled "Midsummer's Night Dream."
The Clarkes, of course, are not the first people to form a family foundation to help education.
Such charities have long attracted the wealthiest Americans, such as fallen junk bond king Michael Milken, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, America's richest man, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who gives computers to inner-city schools.
As part of a $200-million national campaign, Gates last year announced a donation of $500,000 in software to a Los Angeles County Office of Education project to train teachers in using computers.
The Milken Family Foundation has contributed millions to public and private schools, most prominently giving more than $25 million in grants during the past decade to teachers across the nation.
But, while the Gateses and Milkens may be seen by some as following the tradition of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, great industrialists who assuaged corporate excesses with philanthropy, the Clarkes represent a rare breed of benefactors who are simply trying to do what they can to stem the crisis in education.
"When we see the tragedy taking place, we have a duty as individual citizens to step forward," Frank Clarke said.
They taught a summer camp this year at Enterprise Middle School in Compton.
Using a computer lab purchased with the school's integration funds, they ran two classes, Faye Clarke in one and Frank Clarke in the other, for students from around the city.
In one of the final sessions, Faye taught her students how to construct fanciful covers for the journals they kept over the summer.
With the ease of a lifetime teacher, she worked one-on-one, letting the classroom fill with animated chatter until she wanted everyone's attention.
In the adjoining room, Frank Clarke and a volunteer from Pacific Bell taught students to disassemble a computer and put it back together. The Clarkes later bought the school components for 30 computers. The students assembled them.
The Clarkes represent a growing link between private philanthropy and struggling public schools.
Private foundations, which nationally provided $1.6 billion to education in 1995, are still generally associated with the ivy halls of private colleges and their wealthy--or dead--alumni.
Historically, private donations have had a minuscule impact on lower education--K-12 schools--which received a mere 0.2% of their funds from donations in 1991-92, the last year for which the Council on Aid to Education has statistics.