The first day of school often brings anxiety for students and parents. Shirley Vermace and other PTO members in Decorah, Iowa, decided that was reason enough for a party. The first day of school is now marked by the Decorah PTO Back to School Pool Party—fun for the kids, fun for parents, and a fundraiser for the PTO.

The second time the event was held, more than 550 people gathered at the municipal pool in this small town for water games and contests, all the pizza and soda they could consume, door prizes, dancing, and a lot of socializing by kids, parents, and teachers alike. All this for a $2 admission charge, with kids under 6 admitted free.

The party provides a low-key introduction to the PTO and kicks off the new year in a positive and friendly atmosphere. The town supplies plenty of lifeguards who, along with PTO volunteers, keep an eye on the kids. “It gives parents a chance to talk uninterrupted, in a casual environment,” says Vermace. “That’s what people like best about it.”

Many teachers attend, and parents may be meeting their child’s teacher for the first time. Not until teacher meetings several weeks into the school year do families otherwise get to know teachers, Vermace says, and parents like the opportunity to meet them sooner.

This is not to say, she notes, that parents and teachers weren’t in the pool with the kids, enjoying the water. In fact the teachers from K-4 classes provided some entertainment in the form of a dance number for the students. “It’s good for the kids, especially those with a new teacher, to get to see the teachers having fun,” Vermace says.

In addition the party netted a total of $350 and helped recruit a few new members.

Donations

Vermace attributes much of the success of the event to planning and advertising by the pool party committee. A committee of eight parents met three times before the event. These eight solicited cash and product donations from local businesses.

Nineteen businesses participated as sponsors. Two contributed $250, two gave $100, two contributed $50, and 13 gave $25. In addition, the local parks and recreation department effectively donated $100 by reducing the admission fee for the pool. These businesses were thanked in a promotional flyer, in an ad in the local newspaper, and in the press release the committee sent out after the event.

Ten other businesses donated door prizes, including soda, fast food gift certificates, T-shirts, water bottles, and the grand prize, a 10-speed bike from Walmart. Because the group had a large number of door prizes, including 200 water bottles, almost every student took home something.

Getting the Word Out

During school registration, every child in grades K-4 received a flyer promoting the event. “You have a captive audience,” Vermace says. “It’s easy advertising, and you know that every family has been invited.”

Flyers also were given out during registration for 5th and 6th graders, who attend a different school. In addition volunteers “smeared the town with flyers,” Vermace says. High school students were welcome but not specifically invited, because there is a dance held at the high school on the same night.

For a photo shoot for the local paper, the event committee members donned bathing suits and convinced the superintendent and school principals to step into the pool, business clothes and all, to pose with them for a picture.

The day of the party, dolphin and other beach-theme balloons were bundled and suspended from lifeguard chairs, tables, and the entrance. Fifteen volunteers were recruited for two-hour shifts. Jobs included setup, serving pizza and soda, and greeting and collecting admission. The event lasted from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Better Every Year

Every event is an opportunity to learn for the next time. Vermace says that several things changed this time compared to the previous year. Most important, a rain plan was developed. The first year of the party, they could have used one. “It poured buckets until about five minutes before the event,” she recalls. All day people had been calling the pool to find out whether the event was still on—so much so that the phone broke.

So this year the committee not only made sure that the phone was working, but it also publicized the rain plan on the flyers. Next year Vermace is planning to coordinate with a local radio station to provide updates in the event of rain and to include the station on the flyers.

While the first year went relatively smoothly, there were lulls in the pizza delivery time. “We had 400 kids and didn’t predict well the amount of pizza they would eat,” Vermace says. There were long lines while people waited for the next pizzas to arrive. This year, the committee ordered twice as many, 120 pizzas total, and asked the pizza place to continue to deliver until the organizers said to stop. “There were constantly fresh, warm pizzas,” Vermace says.

Next year she will make invitations for the teachers, encouraging more to come to the event. She also is planning to put an ad in the paper so that community members without elementary-age kids know they are welcome.

The last event, she says, actually was well-timed in bringing together families who had been on opposite sides of a rather divisive issue. Decorah residents had voted on a potential bond issue that would allow for the building of new schools and the combining of several elementary schools that house approximately 800 students.

The vote was close, 57 percent yes, but it needed 60 percent to pass. The failure of the measure created two camps: Build new schools or restore the existing structures. The party, says Vermace, was “a happy gathering,” a much-needed break from the issue. As part of the event, the PTO recruited about 20 new members for an organization that is 200 strong. The Decorah PTO serves all four of the town’s public schools, grades K-12—a total of 1,500 students.

Vermace is planning for next year: looking for root beer donations so that the kids have an uncaffeinated option, involving businesses around the pool deck, making sure there are enough door prizes, recruiting enough volunteers so that they only do a one-hour shift and have an opportunity to enjoy the party, and adding a volunteer to pick up trash on the deck and make sure everyone is happy.

The event takes a lot of planning, but Vermace loves it. “Throughout the year I have had people say that it is the best thing that has happened,” she says. “And more important, the PTO is gaining the reputation of providing something valuable.”

Organizing the Pool Party

Planning for the pool party begins in May. The Pool Party Committee meets for the first time and makes all the basic plans, such as choosing a date and time, confirming the pool reservation, and booking the DJ.

In early July, the group meets again and makes more specific plans, such as identifying businesses for potential donations, choosing the vendors, gathering door prize ideas, and then assigning the various tasks to committee members.

During July and August, each committee member contacts local businesses and asks them for donations or door prizes. In early August, final arrangements are made for the party, including listing all donations received and writing and sending press releases. The group takes a promotional photo for the local paper, finalizes pizza and soda vendor arrangements, and orders decorations from a local party shop.

In mid-August, at school registration, one or two members help out with registration for grades K-4. They greet new families and make sure that everyone at registration is aware of the pool party and that each registration packet includes a flyer about the event.

The afternoon of the party, committee members meet at the pool about one hour before the event to set it up and decorate. All committee members bring door prizes they’ve collected with them to the pool that night.


Counting the Money

Income

 
Sponsorships  
• 2 at $250 $500
• 2 at $100 200
• 2 at $50 100
• 13 at $25 325
Admissions 1,000

Total Income

$2,125


Expenses

 
Food  
• Pizzas $840
• Soda 60
DJ 25
Pool rental 400
Printing 100
Balloons/decorations 150

Total Expenses

$1,775

   

Net Profit

$350