The board of the McGavock Elementary PTO in Nashville, Tenn., thought they were just another average parent group. They weren’t a particularly close group; still, they got things done. But a secret was about to come out that set them apart from others.

At the start of the winter session, the board was summoned by the principal and informed that someone had embezzled from the PTO. The president, who had dropped out of the group, was under investigation. The remaining officers’ response to that news earned the group the award for Outstanding Effort To Overcome Adversity in PTO Today’s 2013 National Parent Group of the Year search.

The PTO’s bank account wasn’t just empty, it was overdrawn, and they owed $1,500 for the holiday shop. All of their files and supplies were gone. Having lost trust in the board, the principal could no longer support PTO activities. “It was the shock of a lifetime,” wrote vice president Hanah Atassi in the group’s entry. “We had nothing left but a huge debt hanging over our small organization.”

The four remaining board members shed a lot of tears, vented their frustrations, and commiserated with one another. And they became determined to keep the PTO going at the small Title I school. McGavock Elementary has approximately 300 students in preK through 4th grade.

They restructured the board, asked for and received a donation from a local church to cover their debt, convinced their bank to waive their overdraft fees, and presented the principal with a proposal to go forward with a previously scheduled movie night. He agreed, and the event was a success.

Next, the PTO tried something new with its collection program for box tops, bar codes, and bottle caps. In exchange for their participation, students could vote to hold crazy hair day or no uniform day. The PTO raised five times more money than it had from the same program in years prior.

Growing more confident, but still with no money in the bank, the board proposed the PTO’s first carnival, a large event open to the community. The principal gave his approval. With just a week to spare, the PTO received enough donations from local businesses for the event, but they still needed several dozen volunteers. They reached out to nearby middle and high schools, and plenty of student volunteers offered to help. The carnival was well attended, and it raised more than $1,500 for art, music, and physical education supplies.

But not all of the group’s troubles were behind them. The PTO was in danger of losing its tax-exempt status because necessary IRS paperwork had not been filed for the previous two years. The group worked with the IRS to fix the problem, and before the school year ended, its tax-exempt status was secured.

“Every time we took three steps forward, we always were pushed to take two steps back,” Atassi wrote. But leaders were determined: “The four of us together could move mountains if we set that as our goal.”

What the judges loved: In the face of betrayal and financial loss, the four remaining members of the PTO board focused on moving forward and contributing to the school community, becoming friends in the process. Says Atassi, “We still talk every couple of days. We’re good friends, and our kids are best friends.”

Cool fact: The carnival featured an international food court where families from the diverse school shared traditional ethnic foods.