About a week ago, the Finley Junior High community was shocked to find out vandals destroyed two years worth of work on a greenhouse.
Now, the same students, parents and teachers who experienced the loss want those who damaged the property to know the best revenge is massive success, as Frank Sinatra once said. Since the incident July 7, when science teacher Brandi Domkowski and her daughter, Carolyn, found major portions of the greenhouse smashed and shattered, the students’ need has captured national attention. Their story was picked up by local broadcast stations and people from California to Florida began offering help. The greenhouse was just about a month away from being dedicated to the school’s former principal when it was damaged.
“We’ve had a lot of organizations contact us, saying ‘How can we help you? What can we do?’ It’s almost overwhelming. We don’t want to say no, but I think it’s kind of like how West felt where they had to say, ‘Please stop sending things. We don’t know what to do with it all,” Domkowski said, referring to the city of West after a fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013 that killed 15 and injured dozens. “We’re getting close to that point, I have the feeling, but most of them are like, ‘How can we help?’ So we’re trying to direct them.”
The group of students who built the greenhouse said the remodel will make the greenhouse bigger and better than ever anticipated because of that help.
Officials with Whataburger Restaurants, LLC. reached out to the group to offer them food while the students began to clean up. Then the corporation took it a step further to host a fundraiser called “Oh Whata Night” for the students at each of the three Waxahachie locations. This Thursday, 20 percent of what customers buy between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. from the 604 N. U.S. Highway 77, 2965 N. U.S. Highway 77 and 114 Broadhead Road locations will be donated to the school’s greenhouse rebuilding efforts. One lucky participant will also win free Whataburger food for a year.
“When Whataburger heard about the vandalism of Finley Junior High’s greenhouse, we knew we had to help,” said Whataburger Director of Operations Michael DeVito in a press release from the company. “We encourage the community to come out and support our local students while enjoying their all-time favorite Whataburger meal.”
That’s just one example of dozens the group has had come across in their efforts to rebuild, including the start of a crowdsourced GoFundMe account that’s helped raise $815 out of $1,500 in donations needed, as of press time.
Other examples include Waxahachie’s Home Depot managers who are meeting with Domkowski, students and others Thursday to survey the damage and see how they can help. Waxahachie Shower Doors has offered to replace broken windows and Cedar Hill’s Johnston Products of Dallas is replacing the chain link fence the vandals used to get into with something better, stronger and more secure, Domkowski said. People and businesses an hour and a half away, like in Canton, have stepped up to offer more than $400 worth of organic potting soil. People from Ennis ISD, a rival school district, also stepped up to help, offering to help host fundraisers with collaboration between the district’s and the junior high’s horticulture club.
“I thought it was just going to be people from Waxahachie and people close to us, we didn’t think people from Ennis or any other school districts like that would help, and out of state,” said Zakery Boehler, an incoming Ninth Grade Academy student who was one of the students who diligently worked on the greenhouse before the incident. “It’s weird because, when you hear Waxahachie, you don’t hear anything big about it and it doesn’t really go out of state. Then, the one time this happens, it goes everywhere.”
The North Texas Food Bank even contacted 13-year-old daughter Maddie Shappard, who started a Facebook page for the greenhouse to help build ideas and manage donations after the incident. Maddie has one more year as a Finley student that she can help with the garden, and she’ll be doing so in a big way because of the food bank. The produce grown in the greenhouse will now go to the food bank to help those in need, and help her achieve her Silver Award in Girl Scouts, she said.
“I didn’t expect to make that connection at first, but then once I saw the pieces fall into place, I thought we could actually use something when we grow it for something good, instead of just having some fruit there,” she said. “It feels good, and it’s good to know people will be helped and that I’ll be helping people who don’t have food.”
When the vandalism happened, the students didn’t expect the amount of help they’ve received. They were simply prepared to just go out and do as much fundraising as possible until they had enough to rebuild, Domkowski said, adding the group has even done some garbage digging to get wooden pallets to use for planting projects.
“Now, I have students contacting us daily asking ‘What can I do? When can I be there? Where are we going to go?” Domkowski said. “How many teachers get the opportunity to have students begging to come to school in the summer and do science homework? It’s pretty incredible and doesn’t happen very often, so I’m excited because that means that Finley is really building something great — not only a program, but relationships with our kids. They want to be there for us, they want to be there for the school. That’s really the part of the story that I think is the most exciting, is that we touched the kids’ lives and they touched our lives and they want to stay and be a part of that and keep building that for their community.”
The students will be hosting a clean-up day starting at 9 a.m. for those interested in volunteering to help do onsite work on July 25. With that in mind, Ashleigh Domkowski is still feeling the frustration from the last week and how much she and her peers still must do to get the greenhouse useable again. Ashleigh is the incoming president for Finley’s Horticulture Club. She’s taking over her sister’s position and has helped with the greenhouse since she was in sixth grade, two years ago.
“I was actually very disappointed because my sister came home and told me about it and she showed me some pictures, and I was very sad because I worked so hard on that for two years,” Ashleigh said as she began to choke up. “I was almost about to start crying, then I got really mad because someone did that.”
As of press time, Brandi said they still had no answers to who vandalized the greenhouse.
The students are nothing but smiles as they think about what the greenhouse could become, said Jackie Clements, Zakery’s mother who has helped support the students’ efforts, adding they’re remembering kind people do exist in the world.
Right now, the students still need peer volunteers to help with the work on July 25. Volunteers can register on the Finley Garden Cleanup event page on Facebook. Just search for the name. As far as materials go, the group still needs soil, awning materials or umbrellas to cover the roof of the greenhouse, someone willing to set up a first aid tent for the big day, and someone willing to donate water.
“We want parent volunteers, but we do want them to understand they’re coming there to do the students’ bidding. This is their project. It’s never been my project. It’s their choices and their ideas, and kind of how they wanted things to be,” Brandi said, adding they’re asking parents and adults who want to help to register online and stay with their children at the event, because they want to be able to keep track of who is outside with the children for safety precautions. “Security is an issue. As soon as I started seeing that we had many volunteers, the kids are our priority No. 1. We need to know who is around our children.”
Come cleanup day, security will also be on site to help with crowd control depending on the number of people who sign up, Brandi said. The students also need six picnic tables to use when they want a quiet place to focus, study or learn science in a hands-on atmosphere. The greenhouse, once open, will be used for creative and inspirational learning to get students out of the classroom from time to time, Brandi said.
“I feel really great about it and about everyone helping,” Ashleigh said. “I think it’s going to turn out really great.”