Recently, our Hands On Greater Portland team hosted a wonderful volunteer event at Reynolds Middle School in Fairview, Oregon on May 20th to improve indoor and outdoor spaces there. Todd Diskin, who led the volunteer project for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette/Hands On Greater Portland, witnessed the bliss of students experiencing the transformed school grounds on the Monday after the event, saying the atmosphere buzzed with joy and excitement as the middle school students reveled in the newly transformed spaces. At lunchtime, he said, the students eagerly line up to play in the brand-new Gaga pit and enjoy the freshly painted foursquare courts. Those seeking a moment of relaxation found solace on the freshly painted picnic tables.
"The transformation was remarkable, and the students beamed with enthusiasm," Diskin said.
Throughout the day, the dedicated team of volunteers achieved an impressive array of projects. With the support of around 40 volunteers from Comcast, seven RMS staff members, and United Way of the Columbia-Willamette Volunteer Leaders, a series of challenges and obstacles were met with optimism and grace. As the work was reaching a midpoint, the Principal Shelly Hamness pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the playground and took in the sight.
“I told Todd, I usually pull in up front but I wanted to see the progress,” Hamness said. “As soon as I turned the corner and saw the Gaga pit, I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ I just saw so much potential for fun, and I knew the kids were going to be drawn to all of this.”
Together, the volunteers sorted Legos, revitalized six classrooms, dusted and cleaned surfaces in the library, organized garden beds, trimmed trees and refurbished the playground. The playground was given a makeover as they scraped away the weeds, outlined tetherball and foursquare courts, repaired benches, and painted picnic tables. Additionally, they constructed a new Gaga ball pit and created inspirational posters and banners for the school community.
Vice Principal Tracy Vanden Berg said what she noticed first was the colorful transformation the playground had gone through in a few short hours.
“There’s color on the playground now. It defines all the things that I know the students are going to be able to do now. I know it’s going to be a draw for all the kids and will help them start interacting with each other more and playing. It’s almost like waking up on Christmas morning,” Vanden Berg said.
Color can have a massive impact on the development and comfort of children in the middle school age range. Widely recognized research in psychology and education has shown that colorful learning materials can enhance cognitive processes, increase engagement and focus, influence emotional well-being and augment creative processes. A colorful, rejuvenated playground is more than just a facelift; as Vanden Berg said, it increases accessibility and promotes a healthier play environment that can encourage children to be more outgoing and openminded to new games and friends. Decluttering the garden space, Hamness says, will also be a wonderful improvement for the kids of Reynolds Middle School.
“Peaceful. That is the word that comes to mind when I walk out there. All the weeds, overgrown bushes, everything just looks so much cleaner and more peaceful,” said Hamness.
One of the volunteers, a teacher at Reynolds Middle School, was able to have volunteers work directly with him to complete a litany of tasks that have been sitting on his to-do list. Both Hamness and Vanden Berg say this teacher cares so deeply about the kids, and is always going above and beyond to provide them the best environment he can. Having the extra hands to help meant he was able to go beyond his already busy schedule and get to projects that matter to him, the Reynolds Middle School staff and the kids who attend the school.
“On any given day in the summer, [the teacher] is going above and beyond,” Hamness said. “I’ll look out the window and see him mowing the lawn. He built a fountain in our courtyard for everyone to enjoy. It is so great to see him here with people to help him.”
For many teachers in our community, that extra, unpaid work is just part of the job. At a Title 1 school like Reynolds Middle School, it can seem even more important for a kindhearted educator to put in extra work, despite how unfair that may be to them. With over 80% of students at Reynolds coming from families living under the poverty line, and a similar number being students of color, Hands On Greater Portland projects like this one are a positive boon to what is often a constant struggle. And it goes beyond the school day; Reynolds Middle School is in the heart of a community that is often overlooked by many in the Portland Metro area. With the renovations we were able to complete, this community will now have a new space to bring their kids, for school days and for summer time fun.
Although some tasks remained incomplete, the accomplishments were truly remarkable. The volunteers were unable to build the volleyball court due to compacted grounds, and the vacuum malfunctioned, forcing them to clean up dust manually. Painting the inside of the playground games and all the tables proved challenging, but they managed to complete the ones in best shape. Despite their best efforts, striping the kickball field was left unfinished due to time constraints. Nevertheless, the dedication and hard work of the team were evident in every project they undertook.
“I can’t wait to see the kids’ faces on Monday,” Vanden Berg said. “When they first come out and see all this, I know it will be wonderful.”
The success of this event would not have been possible without the outstanding team of volunteer leaders. The Comcast volunteers showcased a spirited "can do, will do" attitude. The impact of this volunteer event goes beyond physical transformations; it has revitalized the school community, bringing much-needed joy and positivity to students and staff, particularly after a challenging week. The principal expressed gratitude for the projects, as they serve as a catalyst for future improvements and a vision of a school environment filled with joy and tranquility.