Nearly 200 people fanned out over the West Hernando Middle School campus on Jan. 23: students, staffers, principal Rick Markford, even visitors from other counties. They were all there cleaning up the campus as part of the Give a Day, Get a Disney Day volunteer program. The program offered one ticket to Walt Disney World or Disneyland to each volunteer who worked for at least four hours. At West Hernando Middle, the offer was open to 200 people, beginning at age 6.
Markford liked the idea as soon as he heard about it. West Hernando Middle was one of the schools in the district that was going to be visited by the Quality Assurance Review Team during the district's accreditation review.
"We wanted the campus to look good," he said.
Among the challenges was clearing vegetation damaged by recent freezes. "The biggest job being done is raking leaves and remulching," Markford said. "That's being done in every corner of the campus."
The grounds were divided into 10 areas that needed attention.
"The campus has about a dozen ponds of different sorts," he said, "so we're cleaning ponds out." There was also a creek to clean and a waterfall to restore.
The school also has aviaries, a popular place to work. Markford said he had a lot of requests to clean the aviaries. The birds seemed to take the intrusions well enough, for the most part staying out of the way.
Tula Kelleher, the school's Title I parent educator, gave a lot of credit to parent Joe Cooper for his help with the landscaping rejuvenation.
"He really has been amazing," she said, "very instrumental in getting it together."
Cooper priced flowers and drew plans for his vision of how the grounds could look. He coordinated planting, helpers and equipment. As the owner of an aquatics company, Cooper works with algae and weed control, fountains and plants.
Kelleher worked with Markford to pull the event together. She was excited about providing the Disney World opportunity to families that might not have been able to afford it.
Fifth-grader Quest Howard, 11, traveled from Homosassa in Citrus County with her parents, Kevin Gates, 42, and Bernadette Wilson, 34. Wilson said she came to earn the Disney ticket and "to give to the community."
Quest's answer was simpler. She helped load mulch "to get Disney tickets," she said.
Besides the aquatics expert, the project had a tree expert. Parent Tim Garrison, 36, is a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. He was there with his sixth-grader, Levi, 12, another son, Elijah, 3, and his wife, Lisa, a PTA and School Advisory Council member. (Their 1-year-old, Justus, was being cared for at home.)
Tim Garrison said some of the plants may have died in the freeze, but some could just be dormant. He was there to help the volunteers tell the difference. He was helping out "to utilize what we've got, make it look nice."
Levi was bent over a creek, pulling out decaying vegetation. Disney tickets appeared to be secondary to him as he explained why he was there.
"I think it's a great way to interact with other people and I think our school should be clean so that kids who go to our school have a clean environment, and it's also a good place to learn about nature and the environment," he said.
The Disney perk? "That's just an extra part," Levi said.
Not far away, seventh-grader Joseph Rodriguez, 12, was picking up dried plants for disposal. The cleanup, he said, "builds morale and helps the school."
And the ticket to Disney? He shrugged. "That's a good throw-in."