They came. They saw. And this past Saturday, they — nearly 1,000 volunteers from almost 50 churches — painted, scraped, powerwashed, mulched, planted and repaired the campuses of 14 Haywood County schools.
When First United Methodist in Waynesville put out the call for volunteers, Mary Thomas said she “absolutely” knew why without having to ask.
“When they are having to cut teaching positions, they need all the help they can get,” said Thomas, who was decked out in a wide-brimmed hat and spent her morning pulling weeds and tidying up flower beds at Central Elementary.
The volunteer workday originated as part of the Save the Teacher campaign, which started out with the goal of saving one teacher’s job and has since turned into something much bigger.
The effort was kicked off in June by the Haywood County Schools Foundation following the announcement of the first round of teacher layoffs earlier this summer. The Foundation pledged $30,000 to pay for a teacher’s salary, and asked the community to get involved.
“We can’t just stand by and not do anything. The children are the future of this world,” said Steven Brown, director of the foundation.
The community listened. Neighbors talked to neighbors. Pastors appealed to their congregations. And soon, the idea was born for a hands-on, volunteer workday that would provide the schools with some much needed maitenance — and carry a much bigger message.
“We can show the students we’re going to rally around and support you, and make this a place you can be proud to come to school,” said Matt Wells, president of the Foundation.
Erik Evans, a rising sophomore at Tuscola High School who chipped in with his youth group, viewed the project as mission work in his own backyard.
“I thought it would be fun to come out here and do mission work that’s inside our own community,” said Evans, leaning on his shovel.
Before he could finish, Steve Brown, director of the Haywood Schools Foundation, thundered by performing the role of both task master and pep squad.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, go, go! Just 25 more minutes folks to get this wrapped up,” Brown said.
Elly Cirino, one of the volunteers from Bethel, said the workday was a small sacrifice in her life, but due to the huge turnout, it made a huge difference.
“It is my four hours, his four hours, your four hours that all adds up. It is the little thing that change the world,” Cirino said.
Without the volunteer effort, Cirino doesn’t see how the work could have been accomplished.
“The skeleton crew they have can’t possibly get it all done,” said Cirino.
At Waynesville Middle School, where three churches pitched in to paint metal awnings over the walkways between buildings, the volunteers themselves seemed surprised by the difference their work made. The flaking paint and rusted metal was shabby-looking indeed, but as volunteers leapfrogged their way down the covered walkways with brushes in hand, they left a shiny and new look in their wake.
“I think there are two people on the paint crew for Haywood County Schools. There is no way they could do this in a morning like we have,” said Paula Nichols, a volunteer with First Baptist Church in Waynesville, who is also an elementary school music teacher.
A fight that won’t end
Between volunteers turning out in droves for the workday and donors dipping into their pockets to Save a Teacher, the outporing has developed a life of its own. Volunteers have stood in front of Super Wal-Mart in Waynesville to collect money to save teachers’ jobs, gather school supplies for the needy, and raise awareness of the plight of the county’s teachers. Businesses around the county now sell buttons at the register to benefit schools. A bingo night fundraiser is planned Saturday. Aug. 29, at the Haywood County Fairgrounds.
“It’s an example of a negative becoming a positive,” said Bill Upton, a former superintendent in Haywood and now a county commissioner. “In a crisis situation, our people in Haywood County will step up to the plate and do what is necessary to make things better.”
There’s plenty more to be done, said Wells.
“We’re not going to stop on the success of this Saturday,” Wells said. “This is still a cause for concern that we want to make people aware of. The budget problems may not end this year. There’s still handrails that need to be painted and teacher positions we still need to try to save. We want people to continue to rally around the system and continue to show their support, whether it’s a $2 donation or a $2,000 donation, whether its mulching or handrails.”
Upton, a member of the Haywood Schools Foundation, knows the campaign can’t make up for all the cuts in teachers passed down by the state, but it raises awareness of the issue.
“We need to maintain certain levels of staff to still do a top-notch job in eduaction,” Upton said.
A gift that keeps giving
While the tangible benefits are important, the symbolic gesture in a community rallying cry for education is invaluable, according to Brown.
He said the efforts are helping the community connect with the schools.
“We want to bring awareness to the community about the needs of the schools,” said Brown. “Now they have a partner. They have someone in the community that is vested in them.”
The effort in Haywood County might send a message to legislators that the public values education.
And it may also pay off when Haywood County courts new teachers to its schools. This year was the first time in ages the county didn’t have to worry about competing for the new pool of teachers in the state since it was laying people off. But one day, the county will be in the position of recruiting teachers again, and pointing to the commnity support of the Save a Teacher campaign will let prospective hires know they are coming somewhere they are valued.
“It makes me feel like they know the importance of our education system,” Rena White, now a fifth-grade teacher in Clyde Elementary School, said of the campaign. “This is awesome.”
Upton said Haywood County residents have historically supported education. Voters approved $26 million to fund school construction five years ago. And Haywood is one of only two counties in the state where voters approved a voluntary quarter-cent sales tax with the understanding it would be dedicated to Haywood Community College.
As for the workday, it sends a message to students.
“I think kids will come and think, ‘They are ready for us. They are welcoming us back,’” said Paula Nichols, who volunteered with First Baptist Church in Waynesville. “I think they will notice. When something is rusted and kind of worn out looking you think, ‘Oh they don’t care.’ But when it is freshly-painted and freshly mulched, everything looks really nice, it will inspire them.”