​Make a Difference Day: Life-Changing Improvements

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“Sure, I can do that,” said Michael Church, owner of Triad Machine, when asked if he could make a frame and sign for the metalwork sculpture mounted on the front of Monteagle Elementary School (MES). Church’s easy-going enthusiasm echoed that of the more than 300 volunteers who turned out at the Plateau’s eight elementary schools to tackle school improvement projects at the March 4 Make a Difference Day (MADD) event sponsored by the South Cumberland Community Fund (SCCF).
“It’s a great way to give back to the community,” said Kai Koopman looking up from firming soil around a lettuce plant in the new vegetable garden at Sewanee Elementary School (SES). Participation far surpassed expectations. Like Church and Koopman, many of the volunteers had no parent-student connection with the school where they served.
“I’m really pleased with the turnout,” said MES principal Janet Layne. She estimated more than 50 community members helped with the three projects: refurbishing the metalwork sculpture, establishing and relocating raised beds, and constructing a 900-foot trail, complete with a bridge crossing the creek, from the school to the ballpark.
SES principal Kim Tucker said 60 people registered, but throughout the morning people kept wandering up from the street offering help. In addition to planting vegetable and herb gardens, SES volunteers readied a bed for azaleas and hydrangeas, replaced the pea gravel in the reading nook, created a fairy garden, and planted a border of flowers lining the front sidewalk —“104 flowers” said a young boy who counted them.
The most ambitious endeavor, the MES ballpark trail, required easements and liability waivers. MES parent Nate Wilson handled legal details, material acquisition, and prep work, arranging for volunteer Geary Rose to bush-hog the route.
Armed with rakes and shovels, some volunteers spread gravel while others assembled and leveled the bridge. Remnants of a former bridge showed where the trail crossed the creek when kids used that route to the ballpark 50 years ago—a history footnote Wilson uncovered when researching the project.
The MADD event grew out of SCCF’s 2015 Make a Difference grant program that invited schoolchildren to propose how they would use $1,000 to spend in their community.”We funded four of those projects, and it was very successful,” said SCCF Executive Director Laura Willis. “This year we wanted to find a way to involve more schools, more students, more parents, and more community members. And it worked. It was truly a Plateau-wide event!”
The SCCF paid for the supplies needed by the eight MADD schools as well as for snacks, T-shirts for participants, and publicity at a price tag totaling more than $13,000.
“We are especially grateful to our board member and capacity building chair, Bonnie McCardell, whose enthusiastic leadership was the driving force behind Make a Difference Day,” Willis said.
People gave a variety of reasons for participating. Lisa Summers who helped in the fairy garden said her granddaughter Julie Sells came home from school one day and announced, “’Nanny, we need to sign up!’ Who could say no to that.”
“It’s nice to see such a wide range of people,” said SES parent Sarah Marhevsky commenting on the large number of University and St. Andrew’s-Sewanee students volunteering.
A number of the volunteers commented on the importance of setting an example for the children.
“The kids need to see us doing it,” said MES parent Jerry Layne pausing from raking gravel on the ballpark trail.
Marhevsky shared Layne’s sentiment. “It’s a way to model for the kids.”
“Most of the students who signed up to volunteer are ones whose parents volunteer,” said University professor Jim Peterman, who oversees the AmeriCorps VISTA service program, partners with SCCF in coordinating the event.
The greatest difference made by the MAAD community volunteers may well be the longest lasting one. The joy of giving back is learned.