The Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools, and the teachers who receive grants from them, have had to get creative over the last year and a half.
Many of the grants the nonprofit provides to West Hartford schools and its educators often involved hands-on activities, in-person visits from outside guests and large group activities.
Lauren Fine and Deena Samberg-Shefsky, the nonprofit’s co-presidents, said there was a quick pivot that needed to be made back in March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily closed schools and changed what the next year and a half would look like in classrooms.
The first pivot came with the cancellation of their annual and biggest fundraiser, West Hartford’s Cookin’, held every March. It was canceled again in 2021.
“We had to figure out what we were doing,” Samberg-Shefsky said. “Our grants come from the money we raise primarily at Cookin’. We didn’t have a fundraising event in March of 2020.”
Luckily, many ticket buyers continued to support the foundation by not asking for their money back, and instead let the nonprofit keep the profits to continue to support local educators.
“We were so overwhelmed by the support of the community,” Fine said. “We offered people refunds, but people said to keep the money. It was a donation from them. We were incredibly fortunate. During that period, everything kind of stopped, so we had grants that were being deferred. At the same time, because we raised money from our event that never happened, we were still able to go forward with the grant application process.”
In the meantime, the foundation continued giving to the schools, including a $20,000 donation made to the district’s Office of Equity Advancement, as well as providing Wi-Fi assistance for families in need.
Fine and Samberg-Shefsky said they’ve both been interested to see how teachers have gotten creative in their grant proposals during the pandemic. Some in-person visits were switched to virtual visits, while other teachers had to come up with fresh new ideas to enhance learning. They distributed mini grants this past February to supplement that need.
“There was a need,” Fine said. “These kids needed something to spice up the school year. They couldn’t have authors visit. We wanted teachers to tell us why this was important now. It didn’t need to necessarily enhance the curriculum. We just wanted them to do something important during COVID.”
The experience of reading through the grant proposals impressed the co-presidents.
“We were thrilled with the number of applications that we had,” Samberg-Shefsky said. “We gave them basically a month. We had no idea what to expect. We have a very dynamic teaching staff in West Hartford. It was exciting for us to see that even in the midst of all this, these teachers could continue to want to push where they were going and provide for their students that was above and beyond what they had to do, because they were so challenged with everything.”
The foundation themselves had to get creative by replacing their usually in-person fundraiser with something different. That came in the form of West Hartford's Cookin' Up Something New, a virtual fundraiser that offered gift bags to donors. All of the items were provided by local businesses and sponsors. The foundation raised $40,000 through that, allowing them to continue giving grants to teachers this year.
This year, the foundation has decided to delay their grant period, with grants likely being distributed a few months into the school year, allowing teachers time to figure out what the classroom experience will be like.
Fine and Samberg-Shefsky are again excited to see what ideas educators come up with.
“It was amazing to see their creativity with remote field trips,” Fine said. “There was one to the Mystic Aquarium. These kids would log on and be able to experience this together. They had to think outside of the box. We are excited for the year ahead and this grant cycle.”