Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Breaking New Ground

On this warm winter evening, Shamrock Gardens glows with life.

Inside the bright-lit cafeteria, tables crowd with families of all sizes and descriptions, strollers fill the aisles, and the din of happy chatter reverberates around the space. Standing room only here tonight.

Up by the stage, students and siblings groove to a Michael Jackson dance game, shaking their hips and flinging out their arms to the familiar tunes. Volunteers dispense slice after slice of pizza, along with an abundance of brownies. Cars jam the parking lot. The stacks of empty pizza boxes grow steadily higher.

As families finish eating, many make their way over to the K-2 building, where community helper Jerry Gaudet, a steadfast fixture at Shamrock events for more than a decade, hands out sanitary handwipes.

Along the buzzing corridor, screens flicker in dim classrooms as kids toss virtual bowling balls, guide cars on digital tracks, try out new dance moves. Inside the gymnasium, basketballs hit the floor with satisfying thuds before taking to the air.

It took a lot of work to set up PTA Family Wii night. Volunteers had to be corralled, Wiis borrowed, pizza planned and ordered, brownies baked. It's the kind of event we could only dream of putting on five years ago, when we began to rebuild Shamrock's PTA. Back then we'd set a date for an event, send out a few flyers, and mainly improvise. If we'd gotten a crowd that numbered in the hundreds, we wouldn't have known what to do. In those days, with lots of time and effort, Shamrock's staff could pull off an occasional big event. Parents couldn't.

Now we can. 

The school's broadening appeal has drawn in planners, organizers and dozens of new helping hands. Growing interest among families has also brought in other volunteers, heightening the feeling that the school and its students belong not just to parents, but to the surrounding communities as well.

Being able to organize this kind of event means a lot to Shamrock. Our school gathers students from several neighborhoods, and from multiple racial and economic backgrounds. To build ties among our families, connecting them to the school and to each other, we need these face-to-face connections, this mutual enjoyment at watching kids cavort, the rush that comes with working side by side. The more events like this we have, the tighter our school community grows.

The best part of Family Night for me – I didn't do anything at all. I also didn't lift a finger for this year's Fall Festival, for the kindergarten or first grade dinners, for Beautification Day, or for Family Night Loteria back in October (being in Shanghai was a pretty good excuse). We've never had such a full event schedule, and each has been a success.

In our first few years at Shamrock, when most of the PTA planning fell to a tiny group, I worried whether other parents would carry on the work we'd done after we left. Now, as I walk the corridors and see familiar faces like Jerry Gaudet's joined by many, many others, that old anxiety eases. This year's Shamrock T-shirt proudly proclaims that we're "Breaking New Ground." It feels that way to me.

Note: Our Family Night, like the grade dinners of previous years, was generously sponsored by a Front Porch Grant, part of the Crossroads Charlotte program run by the Foundation of the Carolinas.

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