Noe Valley Voice April 2005

Preschool Asks for Oprah's Help

By Valeria Vegas

Have you ever wanted something bad enough to climb a telephone pole for it? Kathy Truett, site supervisor at the Theresa S. Mahler Child Development Center on Church and Hill streets, and Lolly Scammons, president of the center's parent group, want something that badly.

"We want to work on sprucing up the school grounds, to set up gardens and set up outdoor activities like water play and a fountain. We want child-size gloves, art materials for stepping stones, a scarecrow, gardening tools, outdoor easels," says Truett. "We want to compost and recycle the whole school so that the kids can see the cycle of seed-food-plate-compost."

But the pole-climbing? Scammons scaled a telephone pole in order to get a good aerial shot of the school grounds, for a video she and Truett filmed for the "Wildest Dream Come True" contest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

In their video, they told Oprah that Theresa S. Mahler, a public school and daycare center serving 85 pre-kindergarten children, was in need of a makeover. "It looks like a 1950s doctor's office," says Truett.

Their wildest dream, they went on, would be to find a guardian angel who would help them spiff up the school facilities, as well as keep the garden--their outdoor classroom--thriving. "We want to do upgrades on the school's appearance and involve the kids at the same time," Truett says.

Scammons says she was more than willing to risk life and limb to shine a light on the problem. "I grew up in Noe Valley. I'm a fourth-generation San Franciscan, and I had only just realized it was a preschool. It's like a concrete jungle, but once you go inside, it's really an amazing space," she says. "I know Oprah works over at Glide a lot, and I'd love for her to come by and see the school."

They sent the video to Winfrey in October, and are still waiting to hear back. But in the meantime, they've been scouting out other sources of revenue and asking their neighbors for support.

"We've applied for a San Francisco Education Fund grant for $2,000," says Truett, who has been running the school since August. "We are starting ahead of time to take advantage of spring and the energy of the people." The Ed Fund, as it's known, channels money donated by corporations, foundations, and individuals into San Francisco public schools.

Truett and Scammons will know the outcome of the grant application in June, and even if they receive the money, it won't be in their hands until next September. But whether or not Oprah or the Ed Fund comes through, the school is already at work on the garden.

In February, the center sponsored a parent workday and built hutches for a half-dozen rabbits and guinea pigs, who are the newest additions to the family. On April 16, there will be another workday to construct raised beds for flowers or vegetables so the kids won't have to kneel or bend over while they garden. It starts at 9 a.m. and will continue until noon, and refreshments will be served.

"We're more than happy to have anyone who'd like to come and join us," says Scammons. "They can bring their kids, but there's no child care, so they'll just have to keep an eye on them. But they're more than welcome to get in there and get their hands dirty, too."

"When a child knows how to do something, it empowers them," Truett points out. "It gives them a confidence level that will let them handle the next experience."

Named for the woman who was director of the San Francisco Unified School District's child development program in the 1970s, the Theresa S. Mahler Child Development Center was built during World War II for the children of mothers who were factory workers. In the past, it has been slated to be rebuilt with bond issues, but the funds were always relocated.

The school offers Head Start, a subsidized program for low-income students, as well as a program for middle-class families based on sliding-scale fees. "Literacy is very strong--we have a great reading program," notes Truett.

But like most San Francisco schools, Theresa S. Mahler depends on parents and volunteers to provide a lot of the extras. "The problem has been that we never have quite enough funding to keep the garden up, because every two years we get a turnover of parents," says lead teacher Vera Williams, who has worked at the school for 18 years.

"We need any expertise in terms of suggestions or ideas. We need painting, gardening support," says Truett. "If anyone wants to construct some of the flower beds, contribute to the outdoor art studio--outdoor art easels and containers for outdoor clay, stuff like that--we would really appreciate it."

If you would like to offer financial support, you may send donations to Lolly Scammons c/o Kathy Truett, Theresa S. Mahler Child Development Center, 990 Church Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.

If you would like to help out in other ways--or you know the secret to impressing Oprah Winfrey--call the school at 695-5871 weekdays between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.