Story by Leslie King
At the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year, Parents Association President Fiona Lundblad and President-elect Leora Fields had their work cut out for them. After a spring spent on lockdown, they spent the summer preparing to support the school’s opening in a hybrid operating model and helming a team of volunteers that were now collectively standing in front of a blank canvas. With a school that couldn’t gather en masse for any of its traditional community-building events, Parents Association’s leadership and committee chairs were charged with reinventing their community-building, philanthropic and volunteer engagement efforts from the ground up.
“People have really come together,” Lundblad reflected. “It was like after 9/11. I mean, tragedy brings people together. There's certainly been some crisis. But I think the silver lining is that we have been forced into situations that we would not otherwise have been and we have discovered new and exciting and creative options like the car rodeo … We’re forced into situations to try other things.”
“I think that this year has been a gift, although I would happily not have received it,” Fields said with a laugh.
“It has given us the opportunity to step back, breathe, prioritize and figure out what it is we really want to be doing and what it is we truly miss,” she continued, explaining that she was grateful to have been able to take on the challenge with Lundblad and 2019–2020 Parents Association President Ann Leininger. “As opposed to you're so caught up in it, that you just keep doing what you've always done.”
During a typical year, Parents Association coordinates opportunities for family engagement and active volunteerism, and directs financial support to student life and enrichment experiences. That traditionally includes large-scale, schoolwide events (like the Turkey Trot and All-School Picnic); a group that helps welcome and onboard new families and faculty; a group that supports families and faculty in times of crisis; support for student experiential and extracurricular programs; and financial support for faculty requests for items that enhance teaching and learning, as well as capital projects and endowments that support future generations of students and teachers.
In fall 2020, Parents Association focused on three priorities: the reinvention of previously existing community-building initiatives or the creation of new ones; education and training about how to create a more inclusive culture and programs; and supporting faculty and staff.
“Everything has to be different,” Fields explained. “And that's fortuitous because it's almost like a clean slate where we get to step back and prioritize and say, this is why we're here. These are our priorities. These are the things that are most important to us, and what we want to ensure happens in spite of what's going on. And I view that as a real opportunity.”
DA’s Welcoming Committee was the first to face this challenge head-on. The committee assists DA’s Office of Enrollment Management in welcoming and acclimating new families — a mentoring process that begins in May, continues through the summer and typically levels off at the start of the school year. The pandemic required a more intensive effort to integrate families representing 167 new students into the community.
“We had to be creative and come up with new ideas to onboard our new families,” said Holly McKenna, committee co-chair and ninth-grade parent. “We settled on hosting Zoom meetings for each division, kid-to-kid and parent-to-parent events and gifting each new student some DA gear.”
Traditional start-of-year on-campus social events and volunteering opportunities that allowed parents and students to get to know classmates, other DA families and teachers were not an option this year. Because of the pandemic and stay-at-home order last March, some parents had to enroll their children without ever having stepped foot on campus. So virtual events took the form of Zoom “playdates” with breakout rooms for parents and children to connect, parent-to-parent Q&A sessions, virtual scavenger hunts and Zoom events in which new students could hang out with their mentors and advisors.
“We are so grateful to all of the wonderful DA families who agreed to be mentors this year,” McKenna said. “I am especially grateful to our division representatives for stepping up and going outside of their comfort zones by hosting these events. It was not what they signed up for last January, but they rolled with the punches as we kept making changes to our plans to onboard these new families.”
Some of Parents Association’s pilot efforts this fall were so well received that the group plans to keep them post-pandemic. A used textbook swap — through which families donated textbooks they no longer needed and made them available to other families for free — was a huge hit.
“We’re talking right now about how to take what worked so well this year and not lose it,” Fields explained, “which is ironic that here we are saying we don't want to lose what we did during COVID rather than we don't want to lose, you know, what's ‘normal.’ So to me, it's the best of both worlds to have these opportunities.”
One way parent volunteers have been able to get a small taste of life on campus while providing an invaluable service was by serving as temperature-checkers in the Middle and Upper School car lines.
The pandemic wasn’t the only challenge the 60-plus member Parents Association knew it had to navigate. George Floyd’s murder and the racial justice movement prompted the group to re-examine ways that its own membership and events could be more inclusive for all DA families, no matter their background, ethnicity or race.
In October, Diversity Committee co-chairs Monica Newkirk and Rashaunte Mitchell brought in facilitator Brodwyn Roberts for a workshop focused on creating an inclusive culture and programs.
“You've got to really look at everything and that diversity and inclusion is not just about ethnicity or race,” Mitchell said. “It's about looking at people's cultural norms and deciding to look at their work habits, their life situations, looking at many aspects of their life that perhaps some people have a tendency to take for granted. And considering it all when making decisions to say, oh, we've made it convenient, we've made it inclusive.”
The fall was marked by traditional fundraising efforts — the Fall Gifts and Wraps fundraiser raised a record total of $7,200 — and a new partnership with online art and stationery store Minted that netted more than $2,000.
The organizers forced to make the biggest pivots and innovate the most due to the pandemic were those heading up the Turkey Trot and what has traditionally been known as the Benefit Auction Gala/Online Auction. The November Turkey Trot — typically marked by a dense crowd of all age groups sprinting, jogging or walking a 5K and heats of children chasing a teenaged “turkey” around the track — had to be reinvented for safety reasons. The virtual version took place over a two-week period in late November, and its expanded accessibility and participation enabled DA alumni as far away as New York to join the fun. The 500 participants logged a total of 13,000 miles online, prompted by daily challenges and competitions on Parents Association and DA’s social media platforms, and raised $2,700.
“Families got out and hiked, biked, walked AND ran together,” co-chair Lucy Patterson said. “Those avid runners could still run and log their miles. Kids could log alternative activities like basketball, soccer or dancing as ‘miles.’ Even a few family dogs got in on the fun! Participants were able to follow their friends and family on the leaderboard and see photos posted on social media and feel connected to the DA community. It was really heartwarming to see the amount of participation and enthusiasm throughout the two-week event.”
Auction co-chairs Laura Magid and Hadley Nixon had been working on the 2020 Online Auction for nearly a year when the lockdown put the event on hold. The auction team had already received donated items in anticipation of that online event. When it became clear that a large gathering for the Benefit Auction Gala in spring 2021 wouldn’t be possible, they curated their inventory. December’s online “Celebrate the Season” silent auction had COVID-friendly experiences and items. They raised over $8,400 in support of Parents Association (including more than $1,000 in individual donations) with broad participation from the entire DA community.
“As Parents Association’s largest fundraiser, this was not the year we planned or hoped for,” Magid and Nixon said in an email. “However, with every bump in the road, the Auction Team worked together with the Philanthropy and Communications teams and Parents Association to creatively come up with solutions for hosting our events and raising money for our beloved school.”
In addition to navigating their own challenges and anxiety related to the pandemic, the events of the summer and at the Capitol in January, as well as trying to overcome the everyday hurdles of working from home and supporting their own children’s remote learning, Parents Association also prioritized supporting the school’s MVPs — its faculty and staff.
From welcome bags for new faculty and staff and notes of encouragement during those first incredibly challenging weeks, to baskets of snacks, a video full of parent gratitude, and discounted family meals from local restaurants, Parents Association has had a full plate this fall.
“It’s a team. It really is a team effort,” Lundblad said. “People care in their hearts. I've said this a million times, but any other school would die to have one of the 70 people that we have at DA [serving on Parents Association]. People could have easily said, sorry, peace out, I'm underwater. And they didn't. I had a dream team in [Executive Committee members] Delores Moore, Elizabeth Albright and [Communications Liaison] Kelly Wood. And you know, we forged through. … I've grown so much as a person and, you know, I've really enjoyed it — the connections.”
“The connections that you make and having the ability to know teachers or know other parents or collaborate or get to know people who are so outside of your little insular world is such a great opportunity,” Fields agreed. “This has been a lovely way to get to see people and to remind you what you're a part of and why you're here.”