Alumnae work to make campus shine

Workers ripped down old wallpaper, washed away mildew and painted the Vixen Den — hunter green and pale pink.
Workers ripped down old wallpaper, washed away mildew and painted the Vixen Den — hunter green and pale pink.

Not content with winning the battle to keep Sweet Briar open and raising more than $8.5 million in impromptu cash support since March 3, Sweet Briar’s alumnae have moved on to the next challenge: campus maintenance.

Over the three weeks from July 25 to Aug. 14, more than 200 Sweet Briar alumnae, husbands, students and friends of the College have fanned out across campus to chip away at a long list of maintenance tasks. Organizers Debbie Thurman ’76 and Jen Staton ’02 call the effort Sweet Work Days — an homage to Patchwork Days, an early Sweet Briar tradition in which students and faculty helped spruce up the campus.

Brandishing power washers, painting supplies, and gardening tools, the volunteers are:

  • prepping and painting rooms and windows
  • power-washing exterior walls and steps
  • weeding and mulching plantings along roads and pathways
  • sewing valances and re-upholstering furniture
  • scrubbing and polishing walls and floors

“I am blown away by how much we’ve already accomplished,” Staton says midway through the second week.

Staton, wearing a Sweet Briar T-shirt and pearls, then drives away on a golf cart with WSLS TV reporter Rachel Lucas to tour work sites.

Staton and Thurman worked with physical plant director Steve Bailey and grounds supervisor Donna Meeks to identify the most important projects where volunteers could be effectively deployed.

“It’s what we do — rise to challenges,” says Thurman, who’s been overseeing command central from the Alumnae House, where she’s been fielding questions, answering phones, signing for packages, accepting lost items, and icing water bottles as volunteers stream in and out.

The volunteers — about 50 a day — are working thousands of hours. Thurman is still calculating the totals, but the “sweat equity” value over three weeks is easily worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Work sites include the Vixen Den, a popular student hangout. Workers ripped down grimy, stained wallpaper and waged war on mildew. Next they painted — dark hunter green on the beadboard below the chair rails, pale pink above. With gleaming clean windows and newly mulched flower beds outside, the Den looks light and lovely for the start of the new school year.

Across from Sweet Briar’s newly renovated library, Jocelyn Palmer Connors ’62 and Ginny Faris Hoffman ’80 are focusing on azaleas.

“We’re just pruning to help them get happy again,” Connors explains.

Near the traffic circle, a well-coiffed alumna blazes by driving a white truck loaded with mulch.

Some alumnae have come a long way to donate their time and talents.

Ann Gateley ’70, a medical doctor, is in from New Mexico. Her classmate, Kate Schech, a retired federal prosecutor, is down from the Washington, D.C., area. Both are donating three weeks of their time to tame Sweet Briar’s greenery.

Miss Addie’s House

Inspiration for the Sweet Work days came to Staton during the spring, when Sweet Briar’s former board of directors cited $28 million in deferred maintenance costs as one of its reasons for deciding to close the school.

Although that sum defined maintenance broadly, Staton became convinced there were real needs when she drove over to see Ms. Addie Martin, who had worked in Sweet Briar’s cafeteria since the 1960s and had been like a grandmother to many a student. Staton was so concerned by the condition of Ms. Addie’s rented house that she posted a photo on Facebook. Alumnae erupted, and the idea for the Sweet Work was born.

This week, crews are tackling tasks at locations from the Boathouse to the art barn. Over the weekend, workers from AREVA Inc., a world leader in nuclear energy with facilities in Lynchburg, worked at Guion Science Center cleaning and maintaining lab equipment. A cadre of experienced riders also is helping at the riding center, doing everything from painting jumps to polishing tack.

Meanwhile, back at the Alumnae House, Staton and Thurman are already talking about next summer.

Sweet Work, they say, will return.

Story by Anne Lowrey Bailey, a Sweet Work volunteer and daughter of former Sweet Briar public relations director Janet Lowrey Gager. Photos by Meridith De Avila Khan. See also Anne’s related story, Prospective student is already volunteering.