Students who had grown resigned to old, “nasty” furnishings at their dilapidated middle school in rural South Carolina were elated Monday to find new furniture and a freshly painted cafeteria, thanks to a student’s plea, a president’s speech and a businessman’s response.
“I was amazed. They changed the whole thing,” said J.V. Martin Junior High eighth-grader Jessica Manning, 13. “It let me know somebody cares about us.”
Other students could be heard uttering the words “awesome” and “excellent” as they stared at the new furniture, custom made in black with varnished oak tops, that replaced creaky old desks coated in graffiti and chewing gum.
President Barack Obama brought national attention to the school Feb. 24 in his first address to Congress when he read a letter from eighth-grader Ty’Sheoma Bethea asking for help replacing her run-down school.
Bethea had addressed her letter to Congress, so her principal sent it to the White House and South Carolina’s congressional delegation.
Darryl Rosser, CEO of classroom furniture supplier Sagus International, called Principal Amanda Burnette the day after Obama read Bethea’s plea. After visiting the campus four weeks ago, Rosser said he knew he had to do what he could.
Over the weekend, Sagus sent nearly 2,000 pieces of furniture on four tractor-trailer loads. Volunteers worked throughout the weekend to put the surprise together, including a final coat of paint about 8 p.m. Sunday.
The furniture, plus setup and shipping by Sagus partners, was worth an estimated $250,000, Rosser said.
On Monday, Rosser said students’ reactions made it all worthwhile.
“It was heartwarming,” he said, smiling widely.
The cafeteria is newly painted in the school’s black and gold colors, with a three-dimensional Wildcats logo behind the stage.
Words of encouragement from leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. adorn the walls. But the students chose as their favorite these words of President 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.”
At a school assembly attended by state schools chief Jim Rex, U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., Rep. Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon, and Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, Rosser got a standing ovation.
Rex said Rosser, whose business is based in Chicago, demonstrated what South Carolinians should do more often, when it comes to public education. “I’m a little bit regretful that this is necessary, that we need this type of philanthropy,” he said. “For too long in South Carolina people have walked away. … We must instead learn to step up.”
At the assembly, examples of the old desks sat in a semi-circle, tagged with their age — circa 1940 to 1980.
They were “nasty,” said eighth-grader Johnarra Bethea. “All the other desks had writing on it and gum under them,” said the 13-year-old.
Her math teacher, Audrey Hunt, said the new desks have transformed her classroom, which formerly had mismatched desks, including a broken one students kept moving around, so they didn’t have to sit in it.
“It’s inviting,” she said. “It dresses the room up.”
Band teacher Kevin McLellan, a former J.V. Martin student, said he’s been asking for new seats for years. The new ergonomic chairs will improve students’ posture and sound, he said.
After three classes using the new furniture, eighth-grader Darby Hamer said her back felt better than usual, and the new desktops offered more room for books.
“And these don’t squeak,” said the 14-year-old.
The student who brought the attention to J.V. Martin said the correctly-sized furniture will help students focus.
“Even though our dream is not yet completed … We now have a better school. We now feel better about our school,” Ty’Sheoma Bethea said. “We are not quitters,” she added, mimicking the words in her letter, “and we are not through.”