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Building a Field of Dreams

By Danielle Catalano

A southwest Virginia community fundraising committee points out how its fundraising efforts help repair its damaged field.


Nestled in the southwest corner of Virginia lays the embattled athletic field of the Roanoke County School District, gouged by years of soccer and football cleats and rutted from poor maintenance. The once-vim landscape sits haplessly entrenched by a track booby-trapped with bunker-size depressions and renegade fissures. Cave Spring High School (CSHS) student-athletes—and for that matter, members of the school district's bands—brave enough to play on such a field have done so at the expense of sprained ankles and torn ACLs. Even in the best of times, this field was cursed. Situated on a flood plain, the teeniest amount of precipitation guaranteed a game postponement. The conditions are so treacherous that recreation leagues and school district athletic teams are banned from playing on the field until further notice.

News of the condemnation only added to Cave Spring's woes. In what was supposed to be the preamble to the school's 50th anniversary, the summer of 2002 saw the community's heart ripped out when pleas to solve student overcrowding resulted in the county redistricting Cave Spring to create a new high school and middle school. Neighbors in this 25,000-member community were suddenly archrivals.

Enter Laurence Loesel, former Cave Spring High School cross-country star and current Assistant Coach for the high school's cross-country and track and field teams. He got fed up with the athletic field's inadequacies and was looking for something to boost community morale. After researching how the grounds' quality deteriorated so rapidly, he came up with a plan to renovate the track and started sketching his teams' ideal sports facility. His plan involved running across the United States with a couple of college buddies to raise enough funds to start the project. To get started on his mission, he contacted Kay Harvey, President of Project 50, Inc., the community fundraising committee undertaking the task of renovating the plighted athletic facility.

"I was the PTSA president at the time," says Harvey "and Coach Loesel approached me after Christmas, asking if I would mind going with him to talk to the other booster clubs to get support for this, and I said, 'Sure.' He did some drawings of what an eight-lane track would look like, therefore opening our school to host larger track meets. To be honest, we could barely host two or three track meets because it's that dangerous."

Four years later, Cave Spring's Project 50 has successfully raised enough money—$275,000 to date and growing—to break ground for Phase One of an ambitious three-phase, $1.2 million state-of-the-art sports complex that includes the eight-lane track Loesel sketched years ago, European-regulation size artificial soccer turf, and a multi-sport fieldhouse. Below are six elements the Project 50 committee concentrated on to secure Roanoke County School District a new sports facility:

1. Volunteers
Project 50 credits a lot of its success to the enthusiasm, dedication, and support from school, business, and community volunteers. Many of the volunteers stem from school organizations (sport-specific booster clubs, band boosters, etc.) that Loesel and Harvey approached shortly after Christmas 2002 as well as from parent clubs at CSHS's feeder elementary and middle schools. "We decided that we had to appeal to a lot more than just the track team, or we would be dead in the water with this idea," says Harvey.

Recruiting volunteers became simpler once the proposal was broadened, as the two could focus their presentations to the clubs about more positive long-term effects and larger benefits the project could offer clubs.

Expanding the proposal did four things: addressed one of the most common needs among all organizations: lack of facility space; developed a cohesive alliance of supporters and expanded committee membership; increased the ability to market the facility to regional sports organizations in the Roanoke Valley; and served as a means to reconnect to displaced Cave Spring residents affected by the redistricting.

The influx of support allowed the alliance to formally organize itself. An executive committee was created (including Harvey), that then devised a flexible system for how to use volunteers so their time, energy, and experience were used best without exhausting them. Harvey explains how it works:

"We found out that a lot of people would love to help with a specific thing, but they couldn't commit over a long term. So we took the long-term people and made them members of the Executive Committee and committee leaders. We have about 10 committees, with one to three people assigned to each. Each chairperson has a list of people to call to do special things, such as the Special Events Committee. This committee has a huge number of people to work with, but those people are just for specific events. Then we pull names and make lists as we get new volunteers from our feeder schools or from people saying they have an expertise in one part and want to help out for one particular campaign. When they're done, their names go back on the list for volunteer help down the road.

The Parent Volunteer Committee manages this system and works closely with the Executive and Special Events Committees when planning events. The chair of the parent committee hosts workshops for new volunteers at the beginning of each sport season and holds general meetings throughout the year for volunteer input on past events and to review schedules for future events. This system is in its third year with more than 200 community members.

2. Experienced Architects
With more clubs involved, the needs Project 50 served were becoming more intricate. It was time to call in the experts—Balzer & Associates, a local and well respected architectural firm staffed with many Cave Spring High School alum. Harvey says the key to working with experienced architects is for each side to maintain communication with the other and for both to understand the feasibility and goals of the project.

Balzer & Associates originally offered a $5,000-matching donation to the committee in the summer 2004. Later that fall during a halftime football ceremony honoring the architects for the donation, Balzer & Associates made a surprise announcement of a $50,000 gift-in-kind of its services, which the committee gladly accepted. "This is the best gift we have ever received—they made us very legitimate and their service is invaluable," says Harvey.

Balzer & Associates researched all types of tracks, turfs, and fieldhouses nationwide to design an optimum facility for athletic and community services the committee addressed in its proposal. The firm then met with the Project 50 committee and Cave Spring sports booster clubs to discuss its findings and to better understand their needs. Everything from the track and turf material, stadium layout, and fieldhouse construction to the specific practice, training, and storage needs and medical assistance was covered. Based on this feedback, Balzer & Associates designed a fieldhouse that could be built in sections, starting with the bathrooms and concession stands, followed by locker rooms and offices, with late add-ons such as a storage area, team meeting rooms, and a field room.

"We knew the preliminary cost of building the fieldhouse was somewhere near $750,000," Harvey says. "After we talked to the coaches, it almost doubled, so we knew it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Balzer created a design that is very much doable down the road. The shell of the building can at least be built, and money will dictate the rest. Our main focus right now is Phase One, the track. Phase Two is the field and Phase Three is the different stages of the fieldhouse, which will all come later."

The architects averted delays on the sport complex's approval. When Project 50 was proposed to the county board of supervisors, it was challenged because county members believed the track was too wide to fit around the existing soccer field without having to excavate. With its high-quality instruments, Balzer & Associates provided more precise measurements than the county surveyors, reassuring the county board the track would fit without compromising the allotted space. Furthermore, when the committee gave its formal presentation to the school board, the firm made sure the plan was "polished", says Harvey. "Balzer had anticipated most of the questions the board asked, so we didn't have a lot of 'No, you can't do that,' or 'Have you thought of...?' I think the board felt that with Balzer behind us, we weren't going to be doing anything crazy."

3. Finding the Right Surfaces
Based on Balzer & Associates' findings and Coach Loesel's observations, the committee was adamant to use better quality (and more expensive) material for the facility's surfaces: an eight-lane, rubber German Broken-Back track and an artificial European-regulation size soccer field. These surfaces were chosen because they ease maintenance concerns, reduce the threat of injury, school liability, and guarantee the facility's longevity. They can also better handle the Roanoke Valley's mercurial weather conditions. The committee feels using these materials will attract more state competitions, league tournaments, and well-known organizations to use the facility, which hopefully, will generate more funds with added gate receipts.

"The track is a little bit thicker and not quite as long as a typical one you'd find around here," explains Harvey. "We decided we wanted it in rubber and with eight lanes in order to host larger track meets, Relay for Life, and the Virginia Commonwealth Games, which is a big thing around here. The Games bring in about $7 million a week in the Roanoke Valley—and we want to be a part of that.

"As for the soccer field," she continues, "if we want to do anything big, it has to be regulation size. We have two premier soccer leagues in our area, and we want to offer at least a championship game when they have tournaments in the Roanoke Valley."

Using these surfaces also resolves the drainage issue. Not only will they ensure a healthier field but they can reduce the number of postponements of sporting events and cut down on the number of delays that are common during the Virginia Commonwealth Games. "We are surrounded by mountains, and we cannot take the rain because a lot of our fields are built on flood plains. With this surface, within 20 minutes the field drains, so you're good to go. You'd never know it had rained," says Harvey.

When it comes to longevity, both surfaces are guaranteed to last between 15 and 20 years, cutting down on maintenance cost and mismanagement. "We don't anticipate much going wrong," Harvey says. "They're virtually maintenance free. The artificial turf needs to be groomed with a special machine that has a revolving rake about once a month or so, which we can handle ourselves. The track really should have no maintenance until it needs to be replaced.

"The field won't have to be watered or lined," she adds. "The lines are already painted in the grass and will last about three months for the soccer season. Our football team will use the field for practice, so we'll paint temporary lines on the turf that fade off every three months or so. Even that, you paint it once, and it's done."

4. Friendraising and Fundraising
Balzer & Associates also assisted with Project 50's fundraising preparations. Part of its gift-in-kind includes the creation of PowerPoint CDs and portable scale models of the sports complex for corporate sponsor presentations. The CDs and models were also used when the committee talked with a member of the Virginia Commonwealth Games' executive board last October about endorsing the plan.

"We used both to show him what the facility will look like and its capacity to host events," explains Harvey. "He was thrilled because they have nothing like this or anything they can depend on when it comes to bad weather. We then asked the Commonwealth Games would it be interested in having its name linked with ours. We know they have money to give, but to have that connection is just as important."

The other types of fundraisers the Project 50 committee has implemented with much success include community socials, silent auctions, membership drives, working with school booster clubs, and a "50-for-50" mail campaign.

Socials. Cave Spring High School is home to the Knights, so it's fitting that the committee has developed Knight-theme community fundraisers, such as the Midsummer Knight Celebration, Retro-Knight Party, and Knights on the Lawn dinners, which collectively raised over $15,000 in 2006.

The Midsummer Knight Celebration is a family-oriented carnival held at the high school in July. It kicks off with a seven-mile, Mardi Gras-style parade that winds through neighboring towns to encourage the populace to join the festivities, which include food sales, raffles, donor bricks sales, silent auctions, inflatables, and games. The Retro-Knight Party is a community dance event with a New Wave edge (replete with miniskirts and Disco boots) where area bands showcase their best renditions of 1980s hits. Local businesses donate items to be raffled off during the event, and donor bricks are available for purchase. Three years ago, Project 50 started sponsoring Knights on the Lawn dinners during home football games, and this year, the group sponsored a lecture by Rudy Ruettiger (of Notre Dame fame). Silent auctions were included during the events.

Silent auctions. The Special Events volunteers worked diligently getting all items donated for the drawings, raffles, and silent auctions at the Knight-theme events. When asking for donations, the volunteers have a script to work with or a letter to paste in an e-mail that explains Project 50's cause and goals. Items auctioned included weekend trips to area ski resorts and homesteads; temporary memberships to fitness clubs; gift certificates; a wedding photo package; caps and t-shirts from colleges and universities nationwide; prints from local artists; clothing from local stores; and tickets to Virginia Tech and University of Virginia football games; and even a car.

School booster clubs and community organizations. Practically every booster club and organization from the high school has offered their financial support to make the sports complex a reality. Several sports and band boosters have pooled their resources together conducting car washes and bake and yard sales, with proceeds directly benefiting Project 50. In early October 2006, the high school student government ran a community yard sale, donating $1,000 to the committee.

Teams have also collected funds independently. The last three seasons, the basketball teams have donated proceeds raised from their Mid-Knight Madness community pep rallies, and the last two springs, the track and field and cross-country teams have co-sponsored a 5K run with the Roanoke Valley Star City Striders. The profits are split between the Striders and sports teams, and the sports teams have donated all of their profits to Project 50.

Membership drives. From the beginning, the committee has had an ongoing membership support drive. Although donation levels vary—ranging from Paige (lowest) to Knights of the Round Table (highest)—all levels are honored. Starting at the Squire level, donor bricks will commemorate the member's donation on the future facility's Wall of Fame. Plaques inscribed with the names of members at the Knight level will also hang on this wall. Those at the Knights of the Round Table level will have their names engraved in a round marble medallion, embedded at the top of the sidewalk that leads to the Wall of Fame. (All of this was designed by Balzer & Associates.) Harvey notes that most teams have been successfully selling donor bricks, and the 5K race proceeds from the track and field and cross-country teams pushed those two teams into the Knights of the Round Table level.

Naming rights are also available, she adds. "You can name the field, the track, the fieldhouse, the rooms in the fieldhouse. You can name sections of the bleachers, the scoreboard, the team benches—there are just a bunch of things businesses or individuals can put their names on."

50-for-50 mail campaign. This new campaign (in honor of the school's 50th anniversary) uses a different approach to fundraising: going after the little guys. "We're going after 3,000 people to write a check for $50, which sounds much more doable to your basic southwest Virginia family than asking families to buy a $500 brick or a $2,500 name on the Knights of the Round Table."

Using a local mailing company, the committee mailed alumni of CSHS letters detailing Project 50's cause this previous summer and will conduct a second mailing this fall. To reach more families, flyers have been sent home to all the students at Cave Spring High School's feeder schools and Harvey, along with uniformed football, soccer, and track and field student-athletes and band members, spoke during CSHS's Back-to-School night about how Project 50 will aid each specific sport.

5. Publicity
News exposure has been a major component behind Project 50's fundraising success. The committee knew it wasn't good enough to just get the idea of the new sports complex covered in the local media. The task was keeping the idea fresh in the public eye.

Back in 2002, Loesel's objective to running across the country was to draw awareness to the track situation and gather enough public and private pledges to repair the track. Unfortunately, because the race began in May 2003, and the committee was just formalizing itself, the cross-country race was not organized well, says Harvey, and it didn't create any profits. However, what was organized well was the media publicity. This was pivotal because when the race finished in July, the welcome-home party raised over $20,000, more than covering the race expenses.

Over the two-and-a-half months of the race, the committee made sure the local media was kept well informed with progress reports on the runners. The media, in turn, ran human interest stories about the runners frequently on the nightly news and in the local papers, which were well received by the Roanoke Valley audience. When the welcome-party celebration took place, outside businesses and communities were eager to participate. Harvey credits the media , as she believes the committee could not have reached a regional audience without reporters covering the cross-country race.

Publicity is also being used to clarify misconceptions of the Project's cause, one area Harvey admits needs improvement. One of the goals for the committee, she says, is to have better communication with Cave Spring's neighboring four high schools.

"Right now, we have to spread the word that the sports complex is not solely for Cave Spring's use—this is a Roanoke County field and open to everyone," says Harvey. "[The other four schools] are not particularly supportive of what Cave Spring is doing, but we haven't done a particularly good job of talking to them, yet. We absolutely intend for everybody to take advantage of these facilities. The surfaces—which is why we chose them—can withstand 24/7 use, so there's no reason why we can't put kids out there doing what they want."

The final tool of publicity being used is Project 50's Web site. In early 2003, the committee asked to share a page with CSHS's official athletic booster club, Knights' Crossing, on the school's Web site. The club agreed, however, its page hadn't been updated in over two years. After getting permission from the county, Niles Harvey, Kay's husband and an engineer familiar with computer programming, updated the site and managed it until 2004, when the county overhauled its entire Internet system. During that time, volunteers from both groups wrote daily journal entries about Project 50's progress. An outline of the renovation was posted, as were renditions of the facility.

Niles developed Project 50's own site in mid-2004 and manages it today. The new site, which links from the Knights' Crossing homepage, includes thorough details about each phase of the project, an overview, a financial progress report, an up-to-date event calendar, current photos of the construction project, and information on its sponsors (private and public) and its membership drive.

6. Grantwriting
The final element factoring into Project 50's success is grantwriting, and it's geared to meet future financial needs. The committee believes that once Phase One of Project 50 is complete, funding for the remaining phases will be less strenuous. A finished phase will give something tangible to the supporters and provide an air of community actualization. Also, it will make it easier for the committee to seek state, federal, and private foundation grants. The group feels these grants will provide a large amount of funding left to be raised and will alleviate some of the need to ask the public to offer more donations. "After awhile, you can only ask so much of people," says Harvey.

A professional grant writer is working pro bono for the group. She is an acquaintance of an Executive Committee member and a parent of a Cave Spring Elementary School student. Her two-month research effort has revealed a very important piece of information for the committee—grants are difficult to come by for a public high school. "If we were a college or a private high school, there would be avenues available for us to go down that we currently can't," says Harvey.

In light of this information, the group is re-evaluating its message. The grantwriter has found that more money is available in grants that focus on community efforts to combating childhood obesity and the public promotion of healthy activities, lifestyles, and recreational habits. The committee strongly believes these particular grants resonate with Project 50's cause, since the intention all along has been to address the public and student needs as well as the safety conditions of the athletic facility. Additionally, the committee views its advocacy of the new sports complex being a salient multi-use facility open to community-based and nonprofit organizations further stresses the grants' objectives.

With the re-evaluation comes a new name for the project. "Our new title for the facility is Project 50: Future Fields of Fitness," says Harvey. "This is how we're going to approach grants, because this is truly a fitness project. Obesity in youngsters is a huge, huge deal. You hear it everywhere—the news, the papers, the radio, and the national news. We're hoping this will open different avenues for us, and I think right now that's what we have to concentrate on."


For more information on Project 50, please visit www.rcs.k12.va.us/cshsplus/project_50.htm.

Read more about Laurence Loesel's trek across the country at "Proposing a Project."



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