I was digging through my archives in my Harry Potter closet when I stumbled across an old newspaper clipping that brought back a flood of memories. The article was about the Hands on Atlanta project at DeKalb County, Georgia’s Evansdale Elementary in 2000, when I was PTA co-president along with Jennifer Oliver. Our kids are in college now. Back then, they were second-, third-, and fourth-graders.
It was a great day. More than 350 parents, teachers, students, community volunteers and business partners showed up that day to build, paint, clean, plant, and do a dozen other things to beautify the school. I spent nearly 200 hours planning, organizing and executing Hands on Atlanta for the school, but the truth was, I was implementing other people’s ideas.
See, I wanted to do something grand and heroic when I took office. Otherwise, why bother?
At the time Evansdale had just gotten a five-star rating and been named a “School of Excellence.” It was one of the top schools in the state, ranked No. 12 based on test scores, and this with a 23 percent free and reduced lunch rate. As a countywide math, science, and foreign language magnet school, it had trumped demographics. While things could always be better, they were cooking along nicely at the time
Our principal, “Sam” Wyrosdick, no doubt wisely sensing a need to channel my presidential megalomania, approached Jennifer and me in the school’s front hallway soon after we’d been elected but before we could sign checks. Smiling brightly, she said, “I think campus beautification should be our theme next year.” I think she also saw an opportunity to take advantage of a Home Depot guy. She was very cunning. And loved to dance.
Well, that wasn’t my idea. But the most important thing I did that year was to put other people’s ideas on my agenda and implement them. Angie Hawthorne had a dream of converting the dreary looking courtyard into a park. Susan Avent worked with an architect to come up with a plan for an arbor (see photo). Teacher Savant Stephanie Coke introduced me to the Hands on Atlanta project application. And Jennifer worked quietly in the background while I ran my mouth. Evansdale had one of those PTAs–you know, one with 50 committee chairs and at least a hundred trustworthy volunteers. Elves. The usual suspects, I called them. Some I gave nicknames: Laurie Nappo was Superchair; Ruthie Woods was “O Worthy Volunteer”; Ginger Valentine was “Hero” (because when only one person shows up to help, that’s what they are). And of course, our treasurer, Eileen Reimer, who did a great job handling the finances for all of this and more. Her husband, Charles, was a go-to guy on our construction projects. Angie’s husband Robbie was THE go-to guy. Angie would follow me as co-president and cajole me into a follow-up Hands On Atlanta the next year, but there were no pushy corporate flacks or media coverage for that.
It took months of planning. That year, the new gym opened, and thanks to a prior generation of parents’ fundraising efforts, we were sitting on a huge pile of money. It had originally been intended to construct some kind of ersatz gym, but now that we had a real one, there was more than enough money to furnish it, with more than $4,000 going to Hands On projects (we spent more than two grand on lumber that year).
It was a huge work party that started at dawn on October 7, 2000. I mentioned our business partner. A large company was providing 100 volunteers that day. I’d spent much of the week setting up project lists and sign-up sheets, and it turned out to be difficult to put everybody to work efficiently.
So, how did Evansdale Elementary come to be the featured project for the Atlanta Journal Constitution that day? Funny story. Remember that company with a hundred volunteers? Well, they had a PR person. Let’s be charitable and call her a real go-getter. She insisted on media coverage. So here is the corporate flack, haranguing the poor PTA president and demanding that her company’s good works be publicized. While I’m on the phone with her, I’m taking deep breaths and silently repeating my mantra: 100 volunteers. 100 volunteers. Ommmm.
This large corporation also hires a PR firm to ENSURE that they get media coverage. So I get another call from–forgive me–the flack’s flack. Under the gun, he wants to know what to do. Well, I happened to be a former newspaper editor and state government spokesman, but I wasn’t going to volunteer that to this crowd, for fear they’ll have me writing press releases and I have lumber to buy, damn it!
I take another deep breath and say, “The newspaper will want a photo op. Tell them we’re building something big and weird-looking.” Hey, build it and they will come, right? It worked.
On Hands on Atlanta Day, that hard-charging gal arrives at Evansdale and shoves a two-way radio unit into my hand, so that she “can coordinate with me.” Midway through our workday, which ran into the early afternoon, a corporate bigwig showed up for fifteen minutes to have his picture taken. (He had flown into Atlanta just for this.) As far as I know, he didn’t do a lick of work. 100 volunteers. 100 volunteers. Ommmm.
I am so glad that the newspaper ran a picture of the wonderful and gentle-souled Paula Lane (who taught both my kids’ pre-K classes) instead of Mr. Bigshot. By the way, if you look closely, you can see my jeans leg and black sneaker through the doorway behind her. I still wear that brand.
It was a wonderful day. The best day ever. The reporter butchered Sam’s last name in article. That’s why we just called her Sam. The corporate volunteers had all disappeared by noon. I was left with my tw0-way radio. I’m afraid to put in new batteries and test it, for fear that when I turn it on, I’ll hear the flack barking commands at me.
Doors and doorways were painted. We whitewashed the school’s foundation, built a bus shelter, cleared the nature trail, built an outdoor classroom, and of course, put up the arbor. We didn’t get it all done at once. It would take another year before the arbor was stained. And when it was done, it became my favorite place in the world, for some strange reason.