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BOOSTERS MAKE HUGE DIFFERENCE AT SCHOOLS

Parents' creative fundraisers help keep them close to their kids.

Valerie Manalang wants to be close to her teenage son, but not intrusive. So she organizes fundraisers for the Newsome High School Marching Band.

Kids feel comfortable confiding in her, she said. And the money she raises helps the band buy instruments and travel to competitions.

You're guessing car washes and bake sales, right?

Guess again.

On Sept. 26, Manalang will host an eight-hour scrapbooking party in the Newsome cafeteria. Anywhere from 40 to 60 people will attend, each paying $25. In addition, scrapbooking vendors will give the school a cut of their earnings.

"This is our fourth scrapbooking event," said Manalang, 45, of south Hillsborough's FishHawk Ranch. "Last year we had two in the spring."

Booster organizers are thinking creatively in these high-stress times to get parents' time and money - necessities, both, to ensure quality programs in local schools.

A single high school might have as many as 30 booster clubs, said Steve Beden, president of the North American Booster Club Association. Boosters used to be unheard of at the middle school level, he said. But in the last five or six years, as more middle schools have taken part in regional competitions, the clubs have begun to proliferate.

Sometimes it's a matter of friendly one-upsmanship between the schools. At South Tampa's Coleman Middle School, parents wanted to keep the music program on par with nearby Wilson Middle, said David Longacre, a former club president.

Not to be outdone, Eisenhower Middle in Gibsonton has a chorus booster club that offers five levels of membership, including "Platinum" for $100.

Rite of passage

Is it ever too early to be a booster?

John Perez doesn't think so. A three-sport athlete during his high school days in Illinois, he remembers the pageantry of school competitions.

"I wanted my daughter to experience the same things I did," he said. "My parents were boosters, so it's kind of a rite of passage."

At Carrollwood Day School, the private school where his daughter is in the fourth grade, Perez joined a small group of parents who had started the club a few years ago. The others had to back out because of other commitments, and Perez was named president.

Today he devotes as many as 10 hours a week to planning and staffing events and fundraisers.

In Westchase, Sue Vidmar, a self-described "volunteer freak" spent months last year on the paperwork to make sure the nonprofit status and insurance were in order for the Alonso High School athletic boosters.

"When kids get to high school, the volunteer groups start to dwindle," said Vidmar, 47. "It's important for parents to stay involved. Parents say they have no idea what their kids are doing, that their kids don't want them to be at the school. What, are you going to walk away from your child?"

Like Manalang, she enjoys the camaraderie with the kids at the school. "Everybody knows I'm Miss Sue," she said.

A calling

Beden, of the national association in Kennewick, Wash., said he got involved the way most volunteers do. Somebody invited him to a meeting, which was disappointing because "it was a handful of people and all they wanted to do was gossip."

Boosters became more of a calling for him, he said after a conversation with a girls' basketball coach who was losing one of her players. The player could not afford basketball camp because her father had lost his job, and Beden feared her lack of training would bring down the team. To help her discreetly, he said, his club kicked its fundraising into high gear.

"Extra-curricular activities keep kids in school, out of gangs and off drugs," Beden said. "So we all know the power that a well organized booster club can provide."

That is, unless the club suffers from poor organization, financial missteps and member burnout.

His organization provides advice and support. It charges for the service but, he said, the group is willing to negotiate its fees for lower-income schools.

Successful booster organizers say it's best to raise awareness as well as money.

Still, there's no getting around the dire need for funds to pay for everything from football pads to strings for a cello. High school booster clubs can raise as much as $1 million, said Beden, although the average is closer to $27,000.

At Coleman Middle, Longacre is proud to bring in $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

His favorite fundraiser?

"Honey-baked hams."

Really?

"We got people with businesses who bought them, and then gave them away to their employees as holiday gifts. Some people bought 20 or 30 of them."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com.

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Advice from those who know

John Perez, Carrollwood Day School:

- Start small. Building your volunteer base is extremely important. You need two or three people who bleed the school colors.

- Pick specific goals in the beginning. For Carrollwood Day School, it was opening a concession stand and a spirit store.

- Plan ahead - way ahead. You almost have to think two years out. Otherwise, you are beginning with a handful of parents and they will get burned out.

- You can't always be about raising money. People, especially in private schools, are already being hit up. Do something just for fun. Perez's club hosted a family fun night with a

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Valerie Manalang, Newsome High School Band:

- Choose your fundraisers carefully in a tight economy.

- Give prizes to students who get involved. Manalang reaches into her own wallet to buy $25 music gift cards. Sometimes, she'll buy a bag of candy at Walgreens, or a gas card.

- Recently she opened a bank account and, when offered a gift, she asked, "What do you have that I can give to a student?" She walked away with jumper cables.

Sue Vidmar, Alonso High School Athletic Boosters:

- Be careful with your accounting. "Each one of the teams can run their own fundraiser," she said. "But all the money goes through the booster club for checks and balances, and the school also does their own checks."

- Do the paperwork for the federal government. Incorporate as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. Draw up bylaws and register with the state.

"The paperwork is so important, because everyone's going to ask you for a certificate of exemption" before they make a donation.

- Get insurance for your organization and its officers.

- Invite all the coaches and instructors to all meetings to get their participation. You will need them to help recruit volunteers.

- When selecting a fundraiser, look for lower-cost purchases - such as poinsettia plants. "I don't think you can do major fundraisers any more," she said. Last year, her club had trouble finding players and sponsors for a golf tournament.

- If businesses won't give money, they might make in-kind contributions. For example: A restaurant might be willing to host a team dinner in exchange for a kind word in your newsletter.

David Longacre, Coleman Middle School Band:

- The key is a couple of strong leaders who can create a vision. Both Coleman and Plant High School, which his children attend, have young, dynamic band directors who inspire the students. "They've made it cool to be in band," he said.

- Establish really good communication with parents. After disappointing results with paper fliers and even e-mails, the group created a Web site and blog.

- When it comes to fundraising, find something useful. Everybody's bought enough wrapping paper and candy. What are people using now? "I've even heard of light bulbs. The trick is finding something that people use and don't mind spending money on. Then they can use their networking connections to sell more of it."

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FAST FACTS

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE:

- Schedule meetings on Tuesday or Thursday to increase attendance.

- Include a guest speaker and keep the meeting to under an hour.

- Prepare and stick to an agenda. Open meetings to the public.

- Plan for turnover by mentoring future officers.

- Break down events, activities and duties into small, achievable tasks for each volunteer.

- Give members ways to get discounts, extra benefits and exposure.

- Never run a fundraiser for more than three weeks.

- Ask a lot of questions before choosing a fundraising company, and expect them to ask your questions.

- Give donors a way to express your cause through items such as team hats, mugs and shirts.

Source: North American Booster Club Association

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