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Year after year when it came time for the annual fundraiser at Withers Elementary School in Dallas, students were forced to sell unhealthy products like cookie dough.
When Becky Heller became PTA president, she and other parents decided that it was time to stop unhealthy fundraisers.
Heller and a team of motivated parents took a “giant leap of faith” and organized a 5K in lieu of the unhealthy products—and not only did they meet their fundraising goal, they far exceeded it.
Inactivity a growing problem
Becky Heller, a parent with children at Withers Elementary—a dual-language learning school with an 82.6% Latino student population located in northwest Dallas—knew that childhood obesity and physical inactivity was a growing problem.
After learning about the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign, she felt that the school’s PTA could be doing more to help kids make healthy lifestyle choices.
Having served as a parent volunteer for five years prior to being elected PTA president, Heller understood some of the challenges the PTA and students at Withers faced.
“When I took over as the school’s PTA president I started to look at the school’s socio-demographic figures and saw that 68 percent of the student body was on free or reduced lunch,” Heller said.
One very important role of the PTA is to raise money for the school through organizing fundraisers.
In the past children and families were asked to help raise money by selling items like cookie dough, candy bars, and wrapping paper.
This was problematic for a few reasons. First, not every student’s family was able to support the school with the extra money. Although Withers is located in a well-to-do neighborhood, many students are bused to the school from neighboring apartment complexes.
Profits from previous fundraisers had been disappointing because, after paying the cookie dough company, the PTA was left with only a small fraction of the total sales. According to Heller, the school sold $42,000 of cookie dough in 2012 but the Withers PTA only kept about $16,000.
“I thought to myself, why are we doing this?’” Heller said. “We should be actualizing every dollar, especially when a substantial portion of the student population is not able to financially support the school with the extras.”
Heller also was concerned about the unhealthy message kids get by selling cookie dough or candy.
After being elected PTA president for the 2012-2013 school year, Heller decided to encourage parents to organize wellness initiatives at Withers.
In prior years, the PTA helped introduce a school garden and farmer’s market to the campus.
In the past, one parent suggested a fun run, but the idea never moved forward.
“There was a bit of anxiety among parents about the PTA not selling something,” Heller said.
Because of low earnings from the cookie dough sales, she and a handful of parents decided to see if they could get support for a small fun run at the school.
“We thought we’d do a fun run in the back [of the school]. We’ll put up a sound system, put a blow-up in the back and have kids collect money,” Heller said.
Exploring a fun-run fundraiser
That May the school learned a new principal was coming in, so the PTA would have to seek her support before moving forward with any plans for a fun run.
But first, Heller got PTA buy-in.
“This needs to be about a cause and it needs to be bigger than our school, it needs to be about our community.”
After presenting the idea of a fun run to the PTA, and explaining to them that cookie dough sales just weren’t bringing in enough money, the group of parents offered their feedback.
“This was completely parent driven,” Heller said.
While some parents liked the idea for a fun run others thought, Why not just organize a 5K? Some were concerned it would be too difficult to organize this type of event and others were worried that the PTA would not raise enough money.
Fortunately the PTA had a surplus of funds left over from the previous year, so even if the event didn’t turn out to be so profitable, the PTA would hopefully still have enough money to get by for the year.
“I had already decided that if I was going to step up as PTA president, that we were going to take a leap of faith,” Heller said.
While waiting for the new principal to arrive at Withers in July, a steering committee of about five parents was formed. This group began searching for sponsorships and started working to find out what type of permits would be needed for the event.
Then, after the new principal arrived and gave her approval, they moved forward with the project and formed a larger committee of about 12 parents.
“She [Heller] was the creative mind and master implementer of our inaugural 5K,” Withers Principal Connie Wallace said.
According to Heller, getting Principal Wallace’s support was not difficult because the only thing she was concerned about was how much time would be taken out of the students’ school day for fundraising events.
To put Principal Wallace at ease, the PTA presented her with an outline that highlighted all of the fundraiser’s components, including three school-wide pep rallies to get kids excited about raising money for the Withers Wildcat Prowl/Fundraiser.
“We actually didn’t have very much time,” Heller said. “Within six weeks we had to really get everything together…It wasn’t optimal, but we were still able to pull it off.”
Nonetheless, the group applied for a special event permit from the City of Dallas Office of Special Events to host a 5K.
The group also started thinking about how much they should charge for the 5K. While Heller wanted to keep the costs of the 5K low, other parents worried that they should be charging more for registration.
“I thought we should keep the school’s demographics in mind. While $10 may not be a lot for some, it’s a lot for others,” Heller said.
In the end, the group decided that the race would cost $10 for children up to age 18 and $25 for adults.
Setting up the fundraiser
By August each parent on the event committee had a task to do.
One parent took care of the group’s public relations and wrote press releases announcing the 5K. Others worked with Racing Systems—a race consulting group that also times races—to organize some of the event’s logistics.
Some parents focused their efforts on putting together fundraiser packets for students, while others sought donations from companies who could offer prizes to those participating in the fundraiser.
Prize packets were comprised of a one-page information sheet printed in English and Spanish and a registration form. The information sheet contained instructions for the fundraiser, deadlines, and pictures of the prizes offered for those who met certain fundraising goals.
The PTA planned to give away prizes like drawstring bags, water bottles, Ty Beanie Babies, jump ropes, and Frisbees for students who reached certain fundraising goals.
“We emailed Ty and got a 30% discount on beanie babies, and a local toy store gave me half-off on toys,” Heller said.
In addition, the PTA developed a Withers Wildcat Prowl 5K website where students and parents could find: race details; the race registration form; information about the training program, race route and fundraiser; and a list of sponsors.
“Parents were willing to give much of their time,” Heller said. “It was a very collaborative effort.”
Once the committee heard back from the city’s events department, they learned that they would need to hire 19 police officers, an EMT, an ambulance and that they would need to rent porta-potties for the day of the event.
So they got busy contracting these services.
Susan Echart, the school’s P.E. teacher, worked with a nearby middle school dance teacher to teach students a dance for a flash mob—spontaneous public performance—that would take place the day of the race.
“We really wanted to make this about the community so we reached out to our sister [feeder pattern] schools,” Heller said. “We said to them, if you register at least 30 kids we are going to give you half of anyone’s registration fee to use for your own healthy initiative…This sent out the message that this was important to us and that we’re even going to help you financially.”
The PTA’s goal was to raise a net profit of $25,000. At the core of the Withers Wildcat Prowl was the Withers Wellness initiative, which sought to develop healthy minds, healthy bodies, and to promote healthy role modeling.
The annual 5K fundraiser would use a three pronged approach which included: (1) a fundraiser to support the PTA; (2) an initiative to support the cause of preventing childhood obesity; and (3) a training component that would prepare kids for the day of the race and teach them to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Six levels of prizes were developed for the fundraiser and structured as follows:
• Prize 1: water bottle and drawstring bag for those who raised $20;
• Prize 2: Prize 1 and a beanie baby stuffed animal for those who raised $50;
• Prize 3: Prize 2 and a victory party for raising $125;
• Prize 4: Prize 3 a Frisbee, jump rope, and 3 homework passes for those raising $250;
• Prize 5: Prize 4 and a $50 Target gift card for raising $500; and
• Prize 6:- Prize 5 and an iPad mini for raising $1,000.
On Sept. 28, 2013, Withers elementary held their first-ever 5K. The event itself was a tremendous success, boasting a total of 834 runners, which made it the largest 5K event in Dallas that weekend.
About $36,000 was collected from the student fundraiser and similar amounts were collected from corporate sponsorships. Net proceeds were $42,000 for the PTA, much better than the $16,000 received from last year’s cookie dough fundraiser.
“Our cost was only about 19% compared to 50-60% in previous years,” said Heller.
Children would no longer have to go door-to-door selling an unhealthy frozen junk food product that promotes obesity and the PTA raised more money than in previous years, during its annual fundraiser.
After the run
The new 5K, which is expected to become an annual event, teaches healthy living.
A month before the first 5K event, parent volunteers began training students for the run during weekly sessions that lasted about 45 minutes. Attendance to the “Training for the Prowl” program surpassed all expectations.
“We had 90 kids participating regularly in the training when we were only really expecting about 20-30 kids,” Heller said.
Information about the Training for the Prowl sessions was sent out in students’ weekly communication folders and parents were also reminded by email.
Three student assemblies were held to encourage students to sign-up participants. During each assembly, a PowerPoint presentation showed students what prizes they could win. Fun music was incorporated into the assemblies and students were invited to dance along to the song they were learning for the flash mob.
Feeder schools were also invited to participate and their support was important.
“We wrote $1,800 in checks to five schools for them to use for their own healthy initiatives,” Heller said. “We had over 250 participants from sister schools.”
Because the group didn’t want to exclude anyone, they provided participants with the option of not having to register online.
Parents are already starting to prepare for the 2014 Withers Wildcat Prowl (5K).
In March 2014, parents will begin seeking corporate sponsors for the next 5K.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.