Parents pitch in to give preschool facility a makeover

When Michael Feiner and Jennifer Shy enrolled their son at Berkeley's Gan Shalom Preschool one year ago, they had no idea that they would end up spearheading a fund-raising campaign to conduct a seismic retrofit and backyard makeover of the school.

What had originally attracted them to Gan Shalom, Feiner said, was the school's creative approach to early Jewish learning. But almost immediately after they enrolled their son, their involvement with the school began to grow as Feiner and Shy found themselves helping to teach the preschoolers.

It wasn't long before Feiner, a building contractor, noticed the worn climbing structure in the backyard and the aging 1924 house that serves as Gan Shalom's base of operations.

"I looked at the physical structure of the school and thought that given the important work the teaching staff does, they should have a facility that is as top notch as their work," Feiner said. "Educators in our country don't get the support they deserve. They're doing as important work as lawyers and accountants, but they only get paid a fraction of the money."

So Feiner rounded up a group of Gan Shalom parents and began an effort to replace the climbing structure and retrofit the house. "We figured if you're going to upgrade the climbing structure, why not the whole place?" he said.

Only one problem remained once the decision to do the work was made: finding the $80,000 to complete the project.

Undaunted, the Gan Shalom parents banded together and found ways to raise the funds. Through community coffees and private donations, school supporters managed to raise $30,000 in the first six months of planning.

Because of that money, the Gan Shalom backyard today is freshly landscaped, and the climbing structure has been replaced with a brand new one. A tricycle path trails through what parents hope will be an outdoor garden classroom area where children will learn about plants, the cycle of seasons and how they relate to Jewish holidays.

The second phase of construction will be a complete seismic upgrade of the school building. But while the first phase of the fund-raising effort was met with an enthusiastic response from the Jewish community, some parents worry that the second phase may be a bit more difficult to support.

"Contributing to a climbing structure is relatively easy because it's a tangible, colorful item," said Elana Reinin, Gan Shalom's preschool committee treasurer. "But a seismic retrofit doesn't sound very appealing. Will people want to contribute to a crossbeam?"

Apparently, the answer is `yes.' Although the school still needs to raise about $50,000, fund-raising efforts are still in full swing and are bringing in money.

"The response has been overwhelmingly positive and so inspiring," said Iris Greenbaum, the preschool's director. "It demonstrates what is possible to achieve when a community works together toward a common goal."

During the process, the school has received donations from throughout the Bay Area. Many Gan Shalom parents have spent time with construction workers rebuilding the yard, and even the students themselves have eagerly joined in the efforts.

One 9-year-old alumnus of Gan Shalom heard about the fund-raising effort and explained to her parents that she wanted to contribute her own money. The girl, Natalie Bernstein, wrote a letter to Greenbaum explaining why.

"When I was five years old, I had a feeling and I didn't know what it was," Bernstein wrote. "Now I know, money is nothing compared to doing a mitzvah."

Donations to the project can be sent to 2230 Jefferson Ave., Berkeley, 94703. Information: (510) 848-3298.