In Boerne, Texas, the Fabra Elementary PTO has an unofficial motto: “This ain’t your mama’s PTO.”

PTO members mean it, too. In 2007, Fabra parents were looking for a fundraiser that would provide more money for classroom projects and be an interactive, engaging activity for students. Rather than go the safe, conventional route, they rolled the dice and planned a hay maze as the school’s annual fundraiser despite having no way of knowing whether such an event could work.

“We just didn’t want to do a [product] sale,” says PTO copresident Becky Welch. “We wanted to do something that involved the kids more.”

The result is something that looks a bit more like an amusement park or county fair than your typical school fundraiser. For eight weekend days each fall, families roam through the Haysterical Hay Maze while laughing, face-painted children jump in an inflatable bounce house as their parents dig into a bag of hot, buttered popcorn. Other activities include a tractor-pulled barrel train, opportunities for fun photo portraits, and pumpkin painting. People come from as far away as Austin (about 90 minutes by car) to this small town 30 miles northwest of San Antonio to visit the hay maze. The event’s popularity extends far beyond the Fabra family, drawing field trips from other schools, scout troops, birthday parties, and just anyone interested in some outdoor family fun.

The hay maze also brought in $40,000, an impressive amount for a 650-student elementary school. That money was used to fund classroom activities as selected by Fabra’s teachers. Torrential rains prevented the 2009 maze from reaching quite that level of revenue, but it still was a solidly profitable fundraiser.

Beyond the funds raised, the Fabra PTO created an event that energized the parents, got the community involved in the school, and provided kids with a worthwhile activity that just happened to be a great deal of fun.

Spinning Hay Into Gold

When the hay maze idea was first suggested by PTO member Natalie Hart in May 2008, other parents were a bit skeptical. No one had ever attempted a project like it, and they didn’t know how it would work—or how to make it work. PTO leaders promised parents just one fundraiser a year, so the hay maze would take the place of the previous wrapping paper sale.

“We kind of flew by the seats of our pants,” PTO board member Robin Stauber jokes. For example, the parents learned that there were numerous city code specifications they would have to meet: The hay maze would have to be inspected by a structural engineer, safety monitors and fire extinguishers had to be stationed at certain intervals, and the maze could not exceed a certain height. Even the signs posted by sponsors had to meet city specifications.

But Fabra parents and volunteers found ways to get past all of the challenges. Stauber says city officials worked cooperatively with the parents to help them meet code. They limited the walls to no more than three hay bales high, posted “no smoking” signs throughout the maze, and made it accessible to wheelchairs. Organizers worked the email chains and phones and came up with enough volunteers to staff the maze.

Another bit of serendipity came when it was time to get the hay to build the maze. A local farmer became interested in the cause and agreed to sell the PTO all the hay it needed for less than half the retail cost. After the hay maze ended, the PTO was able to resell the hay to local farmers, ranchers, and horse owners.

Finally, the actual construction was far easier than anyone expected. The PTO planned for a daylong effort. Instead, volunteers were able to place the hay bales in only a couple of hours, and the project was finished before lunchtime.

A computer-savvy parent mapped out the maze using GPS technology. From there, volunteers spray-painted the pattern on the ground in the center of the school system’s track field. Parents and members of the Boerne High School Air Force Junior ROTC then placed 2,000 bales of hay on the painted paths to form the intricate maze.

Fabra PTO members also aggressively sought sponsorships from businesses and individuals. The sponsorships ranged from $25 for a small lawn sign plus a personalized scarecrow picture in the school cafeteria to $1,000 for a large and prominent sign, mention in all advertising and press releases, and a picnic table with a sponsorship plaque (which would remain on campus year-round). The school’s location helped, says Welch. Fabra is located on the main street running through Boerne, so this proved to be prime advertising space for interested sponsors. The conspicuous location also helped lure in curious passersby and convert them into ticket-buyers.

“Having the event in the heart of town really helps,” Stauber says. “It brings in people who aren’t necessarily Fabra parents.”

Overcoming the Sophomore Jinx

After a super-successful 2008, Fabra PTO members learned an important lesson the next fall: You can’t compete with Mother Nature. October was unseasonably wet in South Texas, dumping heavy rains on the hay maze. As a result, the maze was only open for a little more than half of its scheduled days. In addition, the hay was ruined by the rain, so the PTO couldn’t resell it after the event.

Despite the unavoidable challenges, the PTO still produced a successful, profitable hay maze in 2009 as the second annual event pulled in $21,000 for the school. Again, Welch says, the parents stepped up to meet the challenge. One dad who owns a septic tank business used his equipment to pump the water out of the maze, while another father who runs a landscaping business employed his crew to repair the damage to the grounds. Ultimately, 125 parents volunteered to help with the 2009 hay maze.

If the weather returns to normal, Stauber says there is no reason why profits can’t return to 2008 levels. Organizers already are planning the 2010 Haysterical Hay Maze for October. Stauber says each year’s event becomes easier because the learning curve is less steep—volunteers know what to expect and what they need to do.

Plus, the PTO is finding it much easier to recruit volunteers to staff the maze now that the Haysterical Hay Maze has been established as a major community happening. “It is a lot of work, but I think the parents had a lot of fun with it,” Stauber says.

Fun for a Good Cause

Although the Boerne Independent School District serves a relatively well-to-do community, Texas has a so-called Robin Hood law that requires wealthier school systems to share a greater percentage of tax money with less fortunate districts. This means that even communities like Boerne have a need for parents to fund classroom-level expenses through privately raised funds. So having a successful PTO fundraiser isn’t just a luxury—it is something the school depends on to support classroom activities.

PTO members asked teachers in the school to submit mini-grant proposals for classroom projects they would like to see funded. So far, the hay maze has paid for such efforts as interactive whiteboards for math classes, exercise equipment for the physical education department, a pottery kiln for the art department, and a guest visit from a NASA astronaut.

“In addition to the material benefits to the campus, parents and teachers have been given the opportunity to work side by side and develop deeper relationships,” says Fabra principal Susan Light. “Students have been able to spend time in an enthusiastic and fun environment that has them outside with their friends and family rather than in front of the television.

“Even though the heavy rains this year left the event less financially successful than last year, the Boerne community was given the chance to pull together and work through the challenges this year, and it allowed us to form even closer bonds with community members who stepped up to offer their assistance in our time of need,” she continues. “I know that the event next year will be even more successful because of the new people that it has brought into our PTO.”


Fabra Elementary PTO’s Tips for Success

Technology is your friend. PTO organizers used email to communicate with the 125 parents who worked on the hay maze project. At the beginning of the year, they were diligent about collecting email addresses. Copresident Becky Welch says this is a far more efficient and effective way to reach parents than going back and forth by phone. The PTO also created a website, www.haysterical.com, to promote the hay maze.

Work with volunteers’ strengths. The great thing about an event as a PTO fundraiser is that it requires a variety of skill sets. Some parents love the physical labor of lugging hay bales and creating a maze from the ground up. Others enjoy getting out and selling sponsorships to businesses. Welch says one mother helped by writing thank-you notes on behalf of the PTO. Another baby-sat while others were working on the maze. No matter where a volunteer’s skills may lie, there should be room for them in a successful fundraising event.

Be inclusive. PTO leaders must be careful not to play favorites or give the impression that some parents aren’t welcome. Board member Robin Stauber says communication is key—information should be shared with all PTO members at the same time, not just with certain friends.

Develop a good working relationship with school administrators. Stauber says PTO leaders are fortunate to have a great rapport with Fabra principal Susan Light and her staff. But that relationship was built through constant and open communication. Administrators should be kept in the loop on all important PTO decisions.