Education motivation: Georgia United School Crashers program gives schools a makeover

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on LSCU’s CUNA Award winners.

Toney Elementary celebrating

Home improvement shows are a big hit among viewers who love to see crews crash this or flip that, taking challenging makeover projects and transforming neighborhood blights into enviable sites. Georgia United Credit Union in Duluth, Ga., employs a similar approach in “School Crashers” with the goal of helping area schools with renovations that make them more exciting environments for learning. For their work, Georgia United received honorable mention for the Dora Maxwell Award in the category of more than $1 billion in assets. This marked the second time the credit union has been honored with a Dora Maxwell Award for its School Crashers program.

Kim Wall, director of business and community development at Georgia United Credit Union, leads teams of volunteers to deliver the credit union’s largest community outreach project. It’s a passion project for Kim, who, through these submissions, sees many schools that need a helping hand.

“My mother was a teacher, and I see first-hand the people who are dedicating their lives to the next generation and are giving them real life skills,” Kim said. “Selected schools are often in an underserved area where resources may be tight. We want to help their students feel that their school is a special place where they can learn and grow.”

Toney Elementary before

Before: A collapsed water feature was an eyesore and hazard at Toney Elementary.

Toney Elementary after

After: A mural, walkway, arbor and landscaping transformed the space at Toney Elementary.

Dr. Karen Dukes, special education teacher at Toney Elementary, nominated the school for the School Crashers program, earning it a dramatic makeover as the Grand Prize winner, valued between $75,000 and $100,000 and including community volunteers and corporate donors to complete. Six runner-up schools receive smaller grants.

Dukes’ essay described the deteriorating condition of the school and the needs of its 350 students. The images she sent clearly depicted a school in need of TLC.

“Dr. Dukes embodies what today’s educator looks like,” Kim said. “She’s somebody who gives and gives and gives. Often spending her own personal resources. It was encouraging for her, as well, to see the business community and the credit union coordinate this massive program and to know we cared enough to go in and do the work.”

Dukes and Principal Oliver Dean prioritized the greatest needs for the school. In one outdoor learning space, School Crashers replaced rotten tables with a shade canopy and new outdoor seating. In another area, landscaping was overhauled, an arbor pathway added, and a privacy fence installed.  Nearby, a second outdoor classroom with benches, an erasable whiteboard, and educational signage was erected.

“We also renovated the lobby and front office, which is the face of the school so to speak,” Kim said. “When people come into a school that looks tired, it’s hard to get excited about learning. Just putting a fresh coat of paint in those areas and replacing well-worn reception seating makes a tremendous difference.”

Toney Elementary workers

Volunteers contributed manpower to make the project even more successful.

Walking down the hallways, improvements were noticeable throughout Toney Elementary – from the media center with new flexible furniture and carpeting, to the bright red chairs in the cafeteria.  It’s made a tremendous difference to students and faculty alike.”

The credit union’s School Crashers program aims to take the project a step further and make that difference quantifiable.

We’re trying to measure the test scores after we come into a school,” Kim said. “It’s too early to get results on this summer’s program, but we do see a correlation with engagement and reduced absences among faculty, staff and students. It’s very impactful.”

Kim said when the makeover was complete and press releases sent to share the word, the response from media was equally rewarding. “People are hungry for these good news stories,” Kim said.

Three film crews from television stations and several newspapers attended the community Crash workday, giving expansive local media coverage.

School Crashers was the brainchild of many, including our CEO and marketing team in 2013,” Kim said. “We were looking to start a new 501c3 Foundation and considering programs that could speak to answering tangible needs in our community. We were founded as a teachers credit union back in 1958, and we felt like this was appropriate.”

The credit union copyrighted and trademarked School Crashers six years ago, and the work began.

“The Georgia United Foundation takes great pride in being active in our local communities and believes that giving back is not only the right way – but the only way,” said Debbie Smith, president and CEO of Georgia United, who is on-site at many of the makeover projects, adding her own volunteer efforts to change educational institutions during hot summer days.

Kim said this annual project should continue to grow and can be attributed to many in the credit union who wanted to make an impact on their community. “About one third of Georgia United’s 360 employees volunteer at least one day for School Crashers.” So, the Foundation provides the majority of the funding and the Credit Union provides the majority of the volunteer labor.

Schools apply in March, and in April multiple stages of judging take place. The Top 10 or 20 schools are selected from several hundred and taken through committee for votes. The goal is to do the work in June and July so that when school reopens for a new year, the school is transformed.

All accredited schools in the state can apply for an improvement grant by submitting a photo and a 250-word request. Georgia United judges select those with the greatest need and then coordinates and customizes the requested projects to utilize volunteer labor and maximize impact and community involvement.

“It’s like drinking from a firehose when we have multiple projects,” Kim said. “We have project management like you wouldn’t believe – with lots of team leads. We really see a difference at the end of the work day. When you compare the before and after, it’s incredible. It’s my favorite project we do all year!”

The program is in its sixth year and has crashed 43 schools, impacted more than 20,000 students, and reached more than $1.4 million in improvements.

Mohawk Carpet, one workplace partner, donated $50,000 in carpets and adhesives to seven different schools in the 2019 program. The square-by-square carpet configuration means if a section is damaged, that area can be removed without replacing an entire carpet.

Partners, school volunteers and staff and credit union staff all work together adding the sweat equity that adds the impetus these projects need to be transformative. Even the credit union’s Executive team pitches in by shoveling, raking, painting or serving lunch to volunteers.

“In addition to the community improvements, Georgia United’s won quite a few state and national awards because this program is such a unique one.” Kim said. “Schools don’t have enough money for everything they need. And, although we can’t provide capital improvements, we can certainly improve the learning environment for children.”

“There are many ways to invest in a school or help children, but Georgia United Credit Union is committed to doing it up close and personal,” said one supporter of Toney Elementary School.

Watch a video of the Toney Elementary makeover here.

Learn more about Georgia United Credit Union’s Foundation here.