September 10, 2015

Saving Sweet Briar College, One Coat of Paint At A Time

  • By: Katherine Flynn

photo by: Sweet Briar College/Cassie Foster

A volunteer works in front of Benedict Hall, part of the college's historic core, during Sweet Work Days 2016.

On March 3, 2015, officials at Sweet Briar College in Amherst County, Virginia, sent ripples of shock and disbelief through the alumnae community when they announced that the 114-year-old women’s school would close permanently after the current academic year. “I couldn’t believe it was true,” said Debbie Thurman, ’76. “And [I had] an almost immediate sense that I had to do something.”

Citing “insurmountable financial challenges,” the president and board of Sweet Briar claimed that they saw no other way to address the college’s dual problems of declining enrollment and restrictions on its endowment. A group of anxious alumnae formed the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. within three days of the initial announcement, determined to prevent their beloved alma mater from being shuttered forever. In late March, they filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia to prevent the school’s closure.

“It just sounded as if the leadership had thrown up its hands and surrendered without a real fight,” Thurman said. “To an old Marine like me, that was unconscionable.”

On June 20, 2015, after more than two months of legal proceedings, Saving Sweet Briar announced that a settlement had been reached between the organization, Virginia's attorney general, and the county attorney. The school would remain open under new leadership, and generations of future “Vixens,” as Sweet Briar students and alums are called, would continue to call the 3,250-acre campus home. On September 2, 2015, Saving Sweet Briar delivered a final payment of $3.64 million in donations to the college, capping off a total of $12 million in funds raised over the course of the summer.

And although the college’s long-term financial stability is still being negotiated in 2016, this marks the second year that handy alums have dedicated themselves to tending the college’s historic buildings in the lead up to the school year.

Thurman, in partnership with Jen Staton ’02, first spearheaded Sweet Work Days over the course of three weeks in August 2015 to make sure the campus was in tip-top shape for both new and returning students. Thurman, Staton, and a crew of about 200 total volunteers (a rotating cast of about 50 per day) power-washed exterior brick walls and steps at historic residence halls and gave doors, walls, and windows fresh coats of paint. They weeded and mulched in planted areas on pathways and roads and scrubbed and polished walls and floors. Volunteers included alumnae and their partners, husbands, and children, as well as community members from surrounding Amherst County.

photo by: Sweet Briar College/Cassie Foster

98 alumnae participated in Sweet Work Days 2016.

Work sites included the newly-renovated 1929 Cochran Library, as well as a student hangout known as the Vixen Den, where volunteers ripped down stained and damaged wallpaper and cleaned mildew. Sweet Briar is renowned for its riding program, and at the campus riding center, alums polished tack and painted jumps.

“I talked to President [Phil] Stone in passing earlier in the week, and he jokingly asked if everyone was planning to bring their rakes and leaf blowers to Founder’s Day,” Staton said in 2015, referring to the college’s annual celebration and alumnae event. “I think if we put out the call to action, they absolutely would.” She estimated at the time that the time and materials donated by volunteers saved the college about $75,000 total.

Thurman and Staton are optimistic that they’ve planted the seeds for something that will continue to improve Sweet Briar College for years to come. “I think Jen and I are both hopeful that Sweet Work Days will become at least an annual tradition,” Thurman said.

This year, 98 alumnae answered the call of Sweet Work Days. Over the course of two weeks, they painted, landscaped, power washed, and completed maintenance work on the campus' historic buildings in preparation for the 165 new students who would be descending on Sweet Briar—up from barely 30 last year.

This academic year, alumnae are helping the college raise $20 million in donations through the Next is NOW initiative to offset a budget shortfall, with the hope that the institution can continue to build its academic programs (especially in STEM-related fields), attract new students, and continue improving the historic campus and grounds.

“In all that has happened, alumnae feel more connected and responsible for the fate of the college than ever,” says Staton.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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