By Kathleen Katims
We sent out invitations, Janet Upjohn, the new development person at Cheerful Helpers and the Alumni Association, (Jackie Sloan, Susanna Lovell and me). We’d asked people to join us to clean up the school. It needed sprucing. Maybe some grass, we dreamed. Maybe a new deck for the kids, to be built over the warped splintery boards of the defunct sand box that sat square in the middle of the play yard. There was a blank wall. Maybe we could paint a mural. The garden was over grown with lots of weeds and we thought maybe we could plant. The toys were dusty. Really as we looked around, everything was dusty. We thought it would be nice to pull people together. Cheerful Helpers when it is running at full tilt serves sixteen kids and sixteen families at a time. Usually it is sixteen kids and families who are at a moment when they need a lot of support.
We alumni parents remember all too well our time when we arrived at Cheerful Helpers. We were not in the school beautification mode. We were in survival mode, trying to learn how to best support our child. For me, I was helping my son find words so that he didn’t express himself by biting. I was trying to join his play, join his world and build a bridge to my world and the world of other children. I was learning how to empathize with him and describe his inner world so that he could have words for what he was feeling. I was showing up at the parent group, listening to other parents’ stories and telling our story. I remember feeling like I had come in from the cold. I remember feeling hopeful.
I was also eight months pregnant. I remember feeling tired too.
That is why all these years later, I was back at my son’s preschool thinking about the current parents and kids who were there. I was thinking that these families, who were in probably one of the most difficult moments of their lives, could use an extended family. And I suspected there was so much untapped love and good will towards that school. Maybe we alumni families could be that extended family. And in reaching out towards those current families, maybe it would have the side benefit of enriching our alumni community. Maybe there would even be opportunities for the alumni children to come back and give back to the place that had given them so much. I know my son is just 18, and learning about the pride that comes from giving back and doing a job well. We alumni families and current families had a lot to offer each other.
So that is how the day was conceived, one enthusiastic Director of Development and three alumni parents sitting around a table figuring it out before hand.
But what happened that day was so much richer, so much more soulful than we could have hoped for. We accomplished more than we set out to do, and the process was so joyous and lifted us all up.
Fifty one people made time to come and help-alumni parents, children and siblings. A garden got planted and weeded. Bikes, chairs, legos, climbing structures, and animals got bathed. A persnickety train table got assembled. The shed got organized, everything in its place like a jigsaw puzzle. Bob the builder (aka Bob) came and like that mythical hero, built the deck in one Herculean seven hour stint with the help of his trusty partner, his son Richard and a trusty crew of alumni lumber haulers and sand movers. Many hands-children, alumni, parents and teachers- came together to paint the mural inspired by the logo of Cheerful Helpers, a tree growing with many branches and colorful leaves. A parent let me know that he had decided to contribute funds for grass to complete the play yard. Where there had been dust and dirt, would be a beautiful green lawn under a shady tree.
What was even more wonderful though than what got done was the way things got done. Kids who I had last seen when they were waist high were now these confident, helpful, strapping young adults who had come out to see old friends and to lend a hand. They remembered this place.They were talking with each other while they were hauling lumber and painting a leaf on the tree. They were helpful and social and proud to be part of it.
And parents who had not seen each other in a very long time pulled weeds together while catching each other up on all their news. One of the alumni kids told me about all the things she was looking for in a college-an extensive foreign language program, equestrian and drama-because she was going to be pursuing all those things. Kids happily hosed down the bikes. I talked to a parent I’d never met before who was able to give me guidance about finding a college. Their son had already been through college and was out in the working world.
A mom who had a younger child who had just graduated told me she felt so encouraged seeing all the amazing alumni young adults who came back. People worked; people had fun; people felt proud; people felt connected. The day was a love letter to Cheerful Helpers. It said, after all that you have done for us, this is our way of saying what you do here is important. We want to you to know what you mean to us. The staff, the teachers, the Ellens all felt it.
The beautification day was from two to four o’clock with a pizza picnic from four to four thirty. People had worked hard, left a little dirtier, but Cheerful Helpers gleamed. There were hugs and numbers exchanged and a buoyant and proud feeling in the air. The day had been a huge success. At four thirty, there were still a few things left to do. The mural needed to be outlined and sealed. Bob still had work to do on his deck. Chris, with the steady hands of a surgeon, stayed to help me paint the black outline on the leaves and the circle around the tree. I sealed it.
When that was done, Bob was still working. I said, “I wish I could help you with the power tools Bob, but I’m a little nervous about using them.” He said, “That’s alright, but I’d love company while I finish it.”
We all gathered around him, Chris to haul in the last pieces of lumber, Jackie to hold the flashlight, Richard to hand off the screws, and Kathy, Janet and I to clear the scraps of lumber and cheer Bob on. All of us, under the moonlight, getting it done, together.