When the Malabar Elementary Parent Club in Los Angeles set out to improve the school grounds, the group didn’t have much money. But members did have a clear goal and a devotion to making their school better. Together, they turned that passion into an amazing Beautification Day event that attracted more than 1,500 participants—nearly two volunteers for every Malabar student!

The project, which brought together parents, students, and teachers as well as the greater community, earned the group the award for Outstanding Job on a Completed Major Project in PTO Today’s 2010 National Parent Group of the Year search.

The Parent Club’s efforts to revitalize the school grounds began in spring 2009, when it recruited more than 250 volunteers to convert a vacant lot next to the school into a reading garden. The empty patch of ground had become an eyesore, but principal Jorge Rios didn’t have the budget to revitalize it.

Diana del Pozo-Mora, a parent who serves on a local neighborhood council, offered her help in organizing a cleanup. She helped the Parent Club tap into community resources to get many supplies donated. The city loaned tools to the group.

Parent leaders decided to hold the event in conjunction with Cesar Chavez Day in late March. The late civil rights leader is a hero to many in the predominantly Hispanic community where the 850-student, K-6 school is located. The group cleaned up the lot, pulled weeds, and planted grass, flowers, and trees, transforming the space into a reading garden.

Teachers and students immediately put the new garden to good use. Classes went to the garden for lessons in the sunshine, and the school chose the spot for its celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday.

After the great success of the first Beautification Day, the Malabar Parent Club leaders knew they had to do something big to follow it up. Rosa Serrano-Overstreet, a 3rd grade teacher and an organizer of the beautification efforts, says project leaders emailed parents, sent home notices, and posted flyers—the typical avenues of Parent Club recruiting. However, the success of the first cleanup made recruiting volunteers much easier. “People were a lot more enthusiastic after they saw what we had done the previous year,” she says.

In addition, the Parent Club tied the project in with a Disney Parks community service campaign, which enabled volunteers to earn free tickets to the nearby Disneyland amusement park in exchange for helping with Malabar’s Beautification Day event.

In the weeks leading up to the Beautification Day, Parent Club members solicited help from local agencies, businesses, clubs, and churches. “We just went out in the community and asked,” Serrano-Overstreet says.

And did they receive. A city councilman’s office provided gloves and plastic bags. A conservation club donated brooms. A paint store gave them paint. A local Girl Scout troop agreed to help, as well. Best of all, a neighborhood church cooked a free hot dog lunch for the volunteers, which resulted in a major cost savings for the Malabar Parent Club.

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Although the parent group had prepared for a large turnout, it was still a surprise when more than 1,500 people showed up to work, Serrano-Overstreet says. To keep things orderly, Parent Club members ran 10 sign-in stations, with two or three volunteers at each station. They sent volunteers to the appropriate parts of campus and gave them instructions for their specific assignment.

Organizers kept the event short. Volunteers arrived at 9 a.m. and were finished by 11 a.m. or earlier. In part, the event was so short because there were so many volunteers to do the work. But organizers also didn’t want volunteers to have to sacrifice a whole Saturday to participate.

Malabar students were invited to help with the cleanup. Teachers talked up the event in advance, so students knew what to do and what was expected of them. Serrano-Overstreet says they enjoyed helping their parents, particularly with painting.

With such a large crew, the Parent Club got plenty of work done. Two large murals were painted, a garden was planted, trash was picked up, and walls received a fresh coat of paint. The event drew so many volunteers that they were able to clean up the neighborhood around the school in addition to the campus itself. The success of the cleanup could be measured by the six large trash bins overflowing by morning’s end.

Principal Rios says the project has made the school safer, cleaner, and more welcoming. But the benefits go beyond improving the appearance of the school grounds: The sense of accomplishment and belonging that students got from the project translated into pride in attending Malabar Elementary, he says.

The project also demonstrated an important lesson to students: how much a group of dedicated volunteers can accomplish. “Hopefully, they’ll give back to their community as adults,” says Serrano-Overstreet.