Using plumbing problems as a ruse, Amy Fehrenbacher and other parent volunteers coordinate efforts to remodel a staff room

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - HUGE SURPRISE - As Middleton Principal Jeremiah Patterson stands out in the hall, staff members  finally allowed back into their staff room are amazed at the transformation of the room. Meanwhile, the inset photo above (taken by volunteer Amy Fehrenbacher) shows the staff room featuring only the barebones basics that the staff used.Something was amiss at Middleton Elementary when the staff returned early on Jan. 7, the first day that classes resumed after the two-week winter break: Yellow “Do Not Cross” tape crisscrossed the two entrances to the staff room, and each door had a sign warning people to stay out due to “plumbing” issues.

Then at 7:26 a.m., Principal Jeremiah Patterson announced over the loudspeaker that there would be a three-minute stand-up meeting in front of the library.

Meanwhile, in the staff room, there were no plumbing problems, just some excited parents putting the finishing touches on a totally revamped lounge.

Over the previous few months, Amy Fehrenbacher and a team of other parent volunteers had worked hard getting donations and gathering everything needed to transform the room over the holiday break.

One of the volunteers was Alison Starling, who said as she came into the room, “Are you kidding? Oh, my gosh, Amy!” Then she saw a spot on the window and raced to get cleaner and a cloth to remove it before the staff came in.

“I woke up this morning like a kid at Christmas,” Starling said. “It turned out fabulous!”

Outside in the hallway, after the puzzled teachers gathered in front of the library, Patterson crossed the hall, opened the door to the staff room and ripped away the caution tape.

As the stunned staff walked in to a totally redecorated and newly furnished room, their jaws dropped, and they could not have been more delighted as they took it all in.

“It looked like a hospital cafeteria before,” said Patterson, who is new to the school this year, of the old lounge, which featured folding tables, stacking chairs and not much else. “The subject of redoing it came up casually last August, and Amy took the ball and ran with it. I asked a couple of teachers to be our moles and let us know if there were any sacred cows that should not be touched or removed.”

Patterson, who was very hands-on during the project helping with the painting and furniture-moving, added, “It was a lot of fun.”

After all the staff left the room to get back to work, Fehrenbacher sat down for a few minutes to talk about the project and all the people who contributed to its success.

“My mom was an educator, and I was a teacher for 10 years, so I know how hard the teachers and staff work, and we really appreciate what they do,” she said. “When Jeremiah came up with the idea, I thought this was something I could never do, but it just snowballed.

“I called Sue Augustyn of SAID Interior Design, who is like my second mom. She came here, measured, proposed a layout of the room and made other suggestions.”

Augustyn referred Fehrenbacher to her friend Todd McAllister, owner of On Stage Home Staging, who had a sale going on at his facility near the Portland airport.

“In late October I put my first-grader and 4-year-old in the car and went to his warehouse, and he asked about our project,” Fehrenbacher said. “I said we would love to get a dining room table, and he said we would probably need chairs too. He said he would charge us zero dollars – everything was free! He threw in a coffee table, a round table, wall shelves, a mirror, a beautiful artificial plant, and a lamp that only needed a shade, which I got at Ikea.

“His act of kindness made me think we could do this project, and my husband and I went the next weekend with a trailer and picked everything up.”

After that, “everyone I dealt with gave me some kind of discount when I explained to them what the items I was buying were going towards,” Fehrenbacher said.

For example, Pacific Paint & Supply in Tigard gave her a five-gallon bucket of paint.

“Several business people we approached have kids who go here, and I think the donations totaled 75 percent of the finished project,” she said. “I did a valuation of this room, and it came to $5,000 without including the value of the labor. I spent a little over $1,000, including $500 of PAC money.”

Money was spent to purchase a brown couch and two blue upholstered chairs that Fehrenbacher found on Craig’s List, and she got discounts when she told the sellers how the furniture would be used.

“And I purchased the two mauve chairs from Target, but I waited for them to go on sale,” Fehrenbacher added. “I did my research to get the most bang for the buck, but I didn’t want the end result to look cheap, and I wanted durable furniture that would hold up to a lot of use.”

She also got creative: After seeing expensive table decorations, she made her own, purchasing inexpensive pots, filling them with rocks and adding branches from her own yard to add a decorator’s touch.

And the runner down the table matches the pillows on the furniture.

On one wall is a framed map of the world, which is a combination of a piece of wrapping paper Fehrenbacher found at home and a $10 Ikea frame. To go along with the Middleton Mustangs theme, she found a large letter M and a horseshow on eBay for the wall shelves.

“It was fun to put together,” Fehrenbacher said.

Among her purchases were several new items for the kitchen part of the staff room: a stainless steel garbage can, two microwave ovens and toaster, plus a dish rack and dishes, glassware and silverware.

But before everything was put away, Fehrenbacher cleaned out all the cupboards. “There was lots of weird stuff in there,” she said.

“It was hard keeping this a secret from the staff while everything accumulated in my garage,” she added. “It’s not like redecorating your house, where you do it gradually. We had to be ready to go and do this fast, but it really came together seamlessly.”

The work began in earnest after the staff left for the winter break, although the efforts did produce some anxiety.

“The night before we were going to paint, I had a panic attack about the paint color,” Fehrenbacher said. “But it worked out even better than we thought. The kitchen cabinets, which we had to work around, used to look like they were a rosy pink, but with the new paint color, they look gray.”

The furniture was moved in two trips using a van plus Patterson’s and Fehrenbacher’s husband Matt’s trucks.

Fehrenbacher added, “It came out way more fabulous than I thought it could be. It just turned out beautiful, and I loved the staff’s reactions. And the nice thing is that the tables can be rearranged into different configurations. I’m super happy with the results. It was a fabulous way to spend my time.

“Our hope is that everyone can come in for a few minutes and just take a breath and relax here,” Fehrenbacher said. “They can move things around and make this their own. These Middleton educators take extraordinary care of our children when they are not with us, and we wanted them to have a daily reminder of how much we appreciate them.”

In addition to Starling, other key PAC members helping with the project were Shannon Milton, Chelsea Etherington and Jerilyn Wernet.

A few staff members emailed their comments to the Gazette after the “reveal” about how thrilled they are with the new staff room:

Jiji Mooney, a special education instructional assistant, wrote, “It was such a pleasant surprise to come to school and see the brand new staff room. I would like to thank all the parents who took the time and effort to transform the room.

“It looks amazing and will be a very relaxing place to have our breaks and lunch. It has truly made me feel very special! Thank you, Middleton PAC, for pampering us throughout the school year!”

Jennica Smith wrote, “The time and effort the parents put into this project is above and beyond what we could have ever imagined and is so special to our staff! They have transformed our staff room into a cozy, welcoming place, paying attention to every detail, where we can join as a community and enjoy each others’ company and the view!

“Thank you so much, Middleton parents, for all you do for our staff. We are truly blessed!”

Diane Johnson, another special education instructional assistant, wrote, “The room is beautiful. It feels so warm and inviting. It’s actually a room you can relax in and eat your lunch. I feel very loved and appreciated!!”

Shelley Tapia wrote, “It looks like a completely different room! It is sophisticated and classy, and the flowers on the table are a nice touch!”

Other people and businesses in the community that Fehrenbacher wants to thank include Realtor Laurie Thiel, Marc and Maria Fox of Marc Fox Homes, Dan Bush of Envirotech Northwest Inc., Sweet Story and Starbucks for donating coffee and treats for the before-school “reveal,” and Kim Sly of Albie Designs and Jenny Schildan of Vine Gogh Artist Bar & Studio for art.

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