O miserable, miserable/And yet…

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O miserable, miserable!

The first part of this overly long and tedious post is, frankly, a big fat downer, but I have to get it out of my system. Feel free to skip to the “And yet” part. I probably would, if I were you.

This has been a heartbreaking weekend. The Helping Hands service group I helped found at my children’s elementary school eight years ago, came to a premature end on Friday. Not for a lack of participants and willing teachers. Not because the group wasn’t something our school was proud to have. Certainly not for a lack of resources…We have a lot of generous (and truth be told – affluent) parents at our school, who have contributed thousands and thousands of dollars to a PTO that is supposed to represent our interests.

Until this year, we had always been reimbursed by the PTO to cover basic operating costs, which never came to more than a hundred dollars a session, and usually well below that. The cost of this program was low, because teachers have always volunteered to lead the program. We have never charged for the class, because we strongly felt that it would go against the very spirit of the program to charge families to participate. Because we didn’t charge a fee, we were able to be inclusive of the very few kids at our school, who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford to participate. Over the years, we have engaged in fundraising for disaster relief, for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, for an orphanage and school in Haiti, the list goes on and on. One thing we’ve never had to raise funds for is to cover our own operating costs. Why would we, when we are part of a school, whose PTO has tens of thousands of dollars in its groaning coffers? Until last year, I trustingly wrote checks to the organization every single year, like most of the other parents at our school do.

Last year, our Helping Hands group was facing a large shipping bill to send a donation of clothing to the Ford Haitian Orphanage. Knowing that the PTO had carried over a large sum of money from the year before, we applied for a PTO grant to cover the cost. In doing so, we inadvertently ignited a controversy. The board felt that money should not go “outside of our own school.” We brought a room full of parents to a usually sparsely attended PTO meeting. They spoke up for us to say that they could see that spending money to ship donations our group had collected would be just as much an investment in our own children as it would be for children in Haiti. If a vote had been permitted, our project would have been fully funded. What an empowering and valuable lesson it would have been to show our children how an ethical community behaves. Those who have share with those who don’t…or should anyway. How wonderful it would have been for our children to see the adults in their lives modeling as generous behavior as they themselves were when they set out to help others outside of our own school. Instead, we were told that a vote would not even be allowed.

After a lot of rancor and wrangling, the outcome of the controversy was that we held a fundraiser. The money raised allowed us to send our clothing donation and also to give donations on behalf of our school to organizations that meant something to our kids. They voted to give money to the Hope Community Center, the PACEM  homeless shelter, SHE (a shelter for battered women), the SPCA, the Wildlife Center, and the Ford Haitian Orphanage. In addition, we were asked to submit a request for next year’s budget. We optimistically requested $1200. We were given $50.  We assumed that the fifty dollars would be for special projects or expenses beyond the basic ones. On Friday the PTO let us know by way of an email informing us that we are $47.41 over budget, that it will now no longer cover our basic operating costs. We can only conclude that this is a punitive measure for calling out the board on how it manages its our money.

When we tried to navigate the system, the rules were arbitrarily changed. We hoped for a change in leadership for the following year and waited for an announcement calling for nominations for a new executive board to be voted into office. Instead, we got an announcement that the board members had basically reappointed themselves in reshuffled positions. At this point, my co-leader Annika and I are throwing in the towel. Pounding your own head against a brick wall is just stupid. I wrote my very last check to the PTO today for exactly $47.41.

And yet…

Our aim has been to show kids that no matter how small or how young they are, they can make a positive difference in this world. Over the years we’ve done projects around our school from raking leaves to cleaning paths. We’ve done projects in our own community from collecting money and supplies for schools in a neighboring county whose buildings were destroyed in an earthquake to helping set up cots for a temporary homeless shelter. We’ve done projects that have taken our kids out into the wide world to visit far-flung places like Afghanistan and Haiti through their charitable giving. Through all of these experiences these children have learned what a difference a penny makes, what a difference an open heart makes, what a difference a willingness to help others makes.

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