DILLON — Eighth-grader Shakeem Sellers stopped by the band room at J.V. Martin Junior High School on his way to science class Monday morning to check out the surprise everyone was talking about.
As a trumpet player in the band, Sellers spent many a backache-filled practice trying to maintain proper posture in the old band chairs. Like the rest of the furniture in this rundown school, they were a mismatch of hand-me-downs from decades ago.
Shakeem, 14, and his schoolmates arrived at the junior high to find all new furniture, including a room full of new band chairs, and a spruced-up cafeteria provided by an Chicago-based company. The company donated the furniture after hearing about the school's shoddy conditions when eighth-grader Ty'Sheoma Bethea wrote a letter to Congress pleading for help to fix her school.
After Shakeem made his way to science class, the first-period band students trickled in and took up their new seats. Music from the band room soon filled the hallway, blending with the chirps from starlings nesting on the ceiling tiles, where they made a home after an animal chewed through the eaves of the dilapidated building.
The school still needs a lot in terms of the facility, technology and resources to give the students here what others in the state already have. But the teachers and students see the new furniture as a beginning.
In the making
Most students did not realize what was happening Friday when their teachers asked them to take the desks and chairs outside to an open area at the center of the campus among a hodgepodge of buildings. The children were told the desks and chairs were going to be cleaned and repaired over the weekend.
Some of the furniture was 50 or 60 years old.
The oldest part of the school was built in 1896. That building is attached by an awning to the rest of the school, which includes a gym originally built as a boxing arena in 1926 and a wing constructed in 1954. The newest portion was built in 1983 after a fire destroyed the middle section of the school. Even the mobile classrooms are old, older than many of the student's parents, and re-sided with beige vinyl panels to cover up the age.
Janesia Haynes and Sanasia McNeil, both 13-year-old eighth-graders, said they didn't know what was up when they left for the weekend.
Janesia said she was shocked to see the redecorated cafeteria and thankful that someone cared enough to give the students the surprise.
"It really hits the heart," she said. "We are really thankful."
Sanasia said the attention on the Dillon school is paying off.
"Change will come to this schoolhouse," she said.
Darryl Rosser, president of Sagus International Inc., was inspired to help after Ty'Sheoma brought national attention to the deteriorated junior high.
Ty'Sheoma wrote a letter to Congress to ask for help rebuilding the school. She borrowed money from her principal for the stamp to mail the letter. After President Barack Obama got wind of her plea, he invited her to his first address before Congress in February to help build support for the $787 billion stimulus package designed to spur the economy and improve America's schools.
Obama visited the Dillon school, part of which is condemned, twice while he was running for the Democratic Party's nomination, and he promised he would remember the children.During the president's congressional address, the television cameras panned over to Ty'Sheoma as Obama told the nation about her story and her school. She smiled and leaned into a hug with first lady Michelle Obama.
Rosser said anyone with a "heart at all" and the means to improve conditions at the school would have felt compelled to do the same as Sagus.
"We hope that our donation will be the first step in giving Ty'Sheoma and her classmates the learning environment they deserve," Rosser said.
In all, the school furniture company and its partners donated 1,100-plus desks and chairs worth more than $250,000.
Getting things ready
Sagus, its South Carolina partner Nu-Idea School Supply Co. of Sumter and Indiana-based contractor Facility Concepts Inc. provided a 25-man crew that worked through the weekend to get the school ready.
Three 18-wheelers accompanied by a fourth truck arrived Saturday with all the new furniture. The old furniture later was loaded onto the trucks and shipped to Texas to Sagus' manufacturing division where it will be recycled.
Contractors painted the cafeteria in the school colors, black and yellow, mounted a new depiction of the wildcat mascot and posted quotes on the wall, including one from Obama: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
The renovation team, along with teachers and administrators, went to lengths to keep everything a secret from the students, even taping black paper over the windows. Rosser and Mike Kula, vice president of Sagus' manufacturing division Artco-Bell Corp., spent hours Sunday adjusting the table and chair legs and wiping down the furniture to make sure everything was perfect when the students arrived.
Gaye Graham, who teaches eighth-grade social studies, spent at least 15 hours at the school over the weekend to help get everything in order. She said the children will take pride in the new furniture.
"I am overwhelmed by the generosity of people who don't even know us," Graham said. That kindness and generosity of strangers is one thing Graham said she wants her students to take away from this experience.
The surprise revealed
The 550 J.V. Martin students gathered in the school's stifling gymnasium for a late morning ceremony to recognize the donation.
Shakeem played his trumpet with the band as it performed "Amazing Grace."
Sitting next to the dignitaries, including state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and 5th District Rep. John Spratt, was Ty'Sheoma.
Ty'Sheoma said she had no idea a surprise was in store for her and her classmates. She knew something was up when one of the teachers called her mother Monday morning to make sure the eighth grader was looking her best so she'd be ready for all the photographers and TV cameras.
Standing before the school assembly, Ty'Sheoma thanked Rosser and his company for the donation. She said the new furniture and the renovated cafeteria will help the students feel better about their school.
Today, she said, was a good day at J.V. Martin, and she reminded her classmates that it is only the beginning of good things to come if they work together.
"We are not quitters and we are not through."