Volunteers at Dawes Elementary School help construct raised beds at the school’s garden as part of the NEA’s Outreach to Teach project.  Photo by Mick Vaught

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More than 400 volunteers from across the country came to Evanston on June 28 to help renovate Dawes Elementary School as a part of the National Education Association’s Outreach to Teach project, part of the NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly, held this year in Chicago, June 27- July 5.

“It’s really exciting,” said Dawes School principal Karen Bradley. “We’ve had these projects on our To–Do list. So it’s … exciting to get all those things done and all done in one day.”

This year NEA’s program celebrated its 15th anniversary. Every year the group chooses a public school in its host city for a free renovation. It has helped schools across the country from New Orleans, La., to San Diego, Cal. More than $100,000 in supplies were used in the Dawes Elementary makeover.

“We work with the faculty, the principal and the people in the community here and say, ‘Let’s turn this school into something new and different,’” NEA president, Dennis Van Roekel, said. “It’s all to make the place friendly for students and, hopefully, get them excited about their new school year.”

Students, volunteers and NEA retired members took part in various projects around the school. Landscaping crews worked outside, planting and gardening, while more volunteers could be found inside, painting and renovating the classrooms and hallways. The playground and school garden also saw improvements as new mulch was added and wooden garden beds were replaced with plastic ones.

“It’s overwhelming,” Principal Bradley said, as she surveyed the work being done. “There are so many people really busy right now. You look around and everybody is doing something and with a purpose.”

Chicago radio stations 106.7 and Power92 were in attendance to provide music and entertainment to the industrious volunteers.

Wes Hanna, a retired NEA member in his first year with the program, made the trip to Evanston from Minnesota. He said the trip “[was a] marvelous opportunity. It’s the kind of thing that really makes you feel like you’re doing something important.”

He added that, while the convention is important, the work that is being done on Dawes is the meaningful work that makes a difference to the kids and is a positive experience for everyone.