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Not-so-secret garden
Fathers club cultivates courtyard at Shiloh Point
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The Shiloh Point Elementary School Dads Club recently completed work on an outdoor area for students to play and learn. - photo by Jim Dean

Two fathers looked at a photograph of a desolate courtyard with dirt, weeds and a few old benches.

“Do you remember digging that up?” Todd Jones asked Brad Reid.

Moments later, they stood in that same spot, which is flourishing with eight themed gardens, fresh sod and beautiful stone arrangements.

The Shiloh Point Elementary School Dads Club worked throughout the school year to transform the area into a place for students to play, learn and experiment outside.

The ongoing project will be open to students for the first time this week after its grand opening Saturday.

“The kids love going outside, and it’s just another way to present material,” Principal Sharon Ericson said. “It’s just endless the things that we can do out there.”

Among the possibilities she cited are science experiments, class pictures, plays and art projects.

Ericson said the idea started when some fathers came to her in the fall asking what they could do to help out at the south Forsyth school.

She pointed outside to the “bunch of dirt in between two wings,” she said, and the fathers took the project from there.

Jones, one of the founding dads, said about 20 to 25 fathers attended the group’s first meeting.

The men agreed that they didn’t quite know the scope of the project they were about to take on.

David Merwin said he thought the original plan put together by a volunteer landscape architecture was just “a pretty picture” when first unveiled.

To Jones, the final outcome is like the “Mona Lisa.” He notes, however, that it never would have come about without the involvement and donations of fathers, families and businesses.

“This community rallied,” he said. “It just shows that with good-hearted people ... we can do something like this for our children.”

Ericson said one expert estimated the courtyard project would have cost about $250,000.

Some fathers were able to donate expensive construction work, like Reid’s grading and irrigation contributions.

Fathers without building skills raised money, built Web sites, worked on communications and did basic labor.

All the club members said they put in the time in addition to working full-time jobs.

Dads and students raised about $25,000 and the rest was donated through volunteer hours and local businesses, with some that didn’t even have children at the school.

That was something Leon Lopez, general contractor and father, said dads in other school districts envied.

“They were actually blown away that a community at this time was doing this when all they hear down in their schools is they’re shutting schools down,” he said.

Aside from donations, families poured in to help, especially during the Dads Club work weekend May 15 and 16.

Lopez said he saw one father about to tear up as he watched his teenage son, a former Shiloh Point student, hard at work.

The kids were able to do small things, like planting, and the dads did the tough work.

“Now when kids say, ‘My dad’s stronger than your dad,’ they can look out here and prove it,” Merwin said.

The fathers agreed that being involved in this project at school made them stars in the children’s eyes.

“Once your kids find out, it all changes. The excitement of the kids is unbelievable,” Lopez said. “Dads usually aren’t involved in school this way.”

Ericson said other schools have been calling to ask how she got the fathers involved.

“You just need the right people,” she said. “These guys have built a legacy for themselves and their children.”

The school plans to recognize the original dads with a something in the garden, though the Dads Club has bigger plans for the courtyard.

A picnic area, gazebo, xylophone, student art displays and a path to next door Piney Grove Middle School are still in the works.

From the beauty of the tropical garden to the Japanese area, teachers have expressed excitement about using the outdoor learning center.

Ericson said one teacher with a window overlooking the gardens had previously asked for a larger classroom. Then she saw the finished courtyard.

“She changed her mind then,” Ericson said.