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Beyond the Classroom: Students on a Mission

Spirits (and temperatures) soar at Outreach to Teach

Mary Ellen Flannery

How much fun is it to scrape gum off the bottom of desks? Or dig holes under a searing summer sun? More than you might think.

Judging by the wide smiles worn by student volunteers at the 2008 Outreach to Teach event in Arlington, Virginia, even sweaty, back-straining, and paint-

staining work can be uplifting. In any case, it’s not the menial work, it’s the awesome mission that makes it such a great day for NEA members.

“Today is all about giving back to the community and making the school environment a better place to teach,” says Kimberly Gray, a recent graduate of Illinois State University, who wears the signs of her labor--white paint!--across her black shorts.

Outreach to Teach, an annual event organized by NEA’s Student Program in conjunction with NEA-Retired, offers student members the opportunity to work side-by-side with retirees and active educators, and also help transform a high-needs school campus with gallons of paint, buckets of seedlings, and heaps of enthusiasm.

 In years past, volunteers have flexed their muscles and wielded their paintbrushes and garden shears in schools as far-ranging as inner-city Los Angeles to the not-so-magical suburbs of Orlando.

 For its 13th year of transformation, Outreach to Teach selected Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, the oldest high school in a diverse school district near the nation’s capital--and one that was sadly showing its wrinkles and age spots.

Better than Botox is an actual injection of youth! Inside the aging campus, under the direction of Rachael Ray Show designer Evette Rios, teams of volunteers transform the faculty dining room. Make way for the Country Squire Dining Room table, please!



While some volunteers “sew” together full-length curtains with sticky tape, others spread fresh paint across the walls, including a giant panda mural detailed by a University of Maine student.

Down the halls, busy volunteers create cloud-covered bulletin boards. “No intimate kissing,” warns one. “Wakefield in the News!” crows another. Many put to use donations from The Home Depot.

Inside the media center, Wyoming Student President Aaron Merkin has one of the most…interesting jobs: scraping gum off the bottom of chairs.

 “I can’t imagine how the kids are going to react. They’ll be--we hope--so surprised and excited.”

“I’d say it’s like Extreme Makeover: School Edition,” says Virginia Student President Sarah Danielson.

Outside, Oklahoma Retired Program President Joy Dennis takes a much-needed break from painting yellow curbs. “Here I am—I’m hot and I’m sweaty, and I probably smell, but I’m really enjoying it,” Dennis proclaims. “I believe what we’re doing is worthwhile and important. It really makes a difference—not only to the students, but to the faculty. It’s a great morale booster.”

Missouri Student President Geron Tatum agrees. “It’s not just about being in a classroom, it’s about creating an environment where learning is possible, where kids don’t have to worry about ceiling tiles falling on their heads.” 

But, even before the students return, and the faculty get a load of their new faculty lounge--fresh terracotta paint, faux-suede chairs, and a flat-screen TV, all donated by JCPenney!--there is an immediate reward for everybody involved in the event, Tatum says.

With work gloves in hands, surveying the bags and bags of mulch that he and his team are spreading, Tatum says, “It’s like the old saying, ‘Alone, you’ve got one finger. But together, you’ve got a fist that can strike a mighty blow.’ …

I just love Outreach to Teach.”

Outreach to Teach is not a once-a-year event.  Carrying out a project at the state or local level can be tremendously rewarding for your members. Past participants say give yourselves plenty of time to plan and raise funds, and forge a close relationship with the school you’ll be helping.

Then enjoy the big day--and share your stories with Tomorrow’s Teachers!

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