It’s a common sight to see Sharon Johnston cutting shapes out of fabric or sorting through her closet full of craft supplies. And one night each month, she carts those supplies over to her daughter’s school, where you can find her working with tacky glue and acrylic paint—alongside a couple dozen students.
Johnston runs what started as a one-time event and has since developed into monthly craft nights at the Bessie Rowell School in Franklin, N.H. Projects have ranged from simple “glue and go” activities to ornately hand-painted wooden Easter eggs, among other things. But the payoff has been a lot more than a few pretty home ornaments; for Johnston, the positive response from students at the end of each project is the real point. “When they accomplish it and they say, ‘Mrs. Johnston, look what I have done,’ I feel so proud,” she says. “When I was a little girl...my mom showed me how to crochet. She passed away when I was 13, but when I got into 9th grade my first real big accomplishment was to crochet the U.S. flag. I can still remember how proud I was. That’s how I want all the children to feel.”
The monthly events have also been a bonding experience for Johnston and her daughter Meghan, a 4th grader at the Bessie Rowell School. The two of them often plan the craft projects together at home, then assemble the kits to bring to school. “It does give me so much more time with Meghan,” Johnston says, “and I can see how proud she is because everyone notices her work.”
Johnston first presented the idea for the crafts nights while attending a meeting for the school’s parent-teacher organization last November. Their bank account funds were running low; she offered to teach a craft activity as a fun event and a low-key fundraiser. The board excitedly approved the proposal.
The idea came naturally to Johnston, who has done countless art projects over the years with her three daughters. And though the two eldest have since graduated from college, she and Meghan immediately dove into the new initiative, cutting out hundreds of 3-inch cloth squares for a holiday wreath activity. More than 20 students in 3rd and 4th grades and their parents attended the first event. All agreed it was a hit, and the Bessie Rowell PTO craft nights took off.
Before becoming the resident craft lady at the Bessie Rowell School, Johnston volunteered at the Paul Smith School, which serves 1st and 2nd grade students in Franklin. “At first I was a little nervous,” she recalls, “but I asked a friend when the first PTO meeting was and showed up to every one [after that].” Soon she was helping with bake sales and other events at school; the next year, she served as Paul Smith PTO treasurer. “I had never been in that position before for the school, but they didn’t have anyone and I wanted to help them and make a difference,” she says.
These days, when Johnston is not at work as a customer service representative or at the school in her volunteer role, she’s at home trying to find inspiration for the next art project. The 90-minute activities have consistently drawn about 25 students a month, and Johnston plans to assemble a scrapbook with photos of the students and their completed crafts.
Not all of Johnston’s creative ideas come to life; sometimes, there’s just not enough time to turn all the trash into treasure. “I was given over 50 scarecrows, but my garage was filling up and so we ended up throwing them out,” she says. But volunteering at the Bessie Rowell School has allowed her to craft a network of friends and supporters. She has gotten to know other parents when they pick up their children after the monthly events. And last April, when she was hospitalized briefly, another PTO parent provided dinner for her family.
She also credits the craft nights in particular with helping her youngest daughter become more outgoing: “I think one of the benefits of getting involved with the school is it has helped Meghan become more confident,” Johnston says. “I can remember a time where Meghan would not say a word.” Now, the 10-year-old will often help other students complete their projects. “By her confidence and smiles, I can tell how great she feels. She lights up.”
Sharon’s Tips for Getting Involved
Crafty mom Sharon Johnston found a sense of belonging at her daughter’s school by sharing one of her passions. Here are some other pointers she picked up along the way.
Look around and ask.
Johnston attends every parents’ night so she can stay informed; she also routinely checks the school bulletin boards and website. She advises parents to check out the schedule for parent group meetings. “I found out by just asking a teacher I saw walking by,” she says. Alternatively, she recommends, “ask another mom who is picking up her child.”
Parents may not feel at ease during the first few visits to school. “I know it took me a few times before I was comfortable speaking up,” Johnston recalls. “Give yourself some time to adjust, as well.” By attending PTO meetings for a few months, she became familiar with the group’s members, budget information, and meeting protocol. This gave her the time and confidence to think out and present her craft program idea.
Know you’re not alone.
“At one time I felt very much alone, and I used to ask myself, ‘How do other parents handle these situations?’ ” Johnston says. “The beautiful thing is there are so many parents out there that have the same concerns.” Chatting with other parents at the school enlightened her and eased her worries as a new parent at Bessie Rowell.
See for yourself.
Johnston didn’t let negative rumors prevent her from helping out. “I had heard horror stories about the Bessie Rowell School’s principal—how strict he was, how parents couldn’t get involved, etc.,” she notes. But her experience at the school has proven to be fulfilling: “It is a nice feeling and gratifying when your daughter or son is so excited you came and helped out.”