04/25/2012 11:58 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Planting Hope With the Children of Watts: Philanthropy With Immediate Impact

No one seemed to know why five giant concrete rings had been built into the middle of the playground, but there they stood: chipped and cracking, eight feet in diameter, rising about six inches from the blacktop. Three of the rings were filled with dirt and weeds while someone had used tar to fill the other two. Yellow caution tape was haphazardly strung across two of the uncovered rings.

Then new Principal Alvaretta Baxter asked about the rings and most people seemed to think they had a connection to the five Olympic rings. The school is named after Olympian track star and alumna, Florence Griffith-Joyner. Truth was the rings were planters for long-gone trees, but few people remembered. The rings once held Carrotwood trees, but they either died or were cut down: the details remain unclear. What was left were decaying concrete planters for children to trip over, use as garbage cans, pull dirt to throw at each other and various other less than helpful activities -- visible symbols of the years of neglect visited upon this Watts elementary school.

The abandoned concrete tree rings were only the beginning of the general shabbiness that had settled onto Griffith-Joyner, a once attractive, '60s modern campus. The front entrance to the school was no longer used because of the traffic it caused, so as a result, children now enter from a side street at the back of the school, through chain-link fencing, past generators and over broken blacktop. Courtyards between buildings had become barren and filled with swaths of hardened dirt where plants had once been. The massive school playground, nearly a half an acre, stood uncared for, empty and colorless -- a vast expanse of often buckled blacktop, grey handball walls, and the circular concrete stumps, all surrounded by chain-link fencing.

In these times of deep budget cuts to public education, there wasn't a snowball's chance in Hades that Griffith-Joyner was going to get the facelift and care it so clearly needed. The numbers of plant managers and maintenance resources have been, and continue to be, cut across the city -- by some measures by as much as 75%, even though there has long been research that connects better school facilities with improved learning, discipline, and teacher retention. Yet in today's context of thousands of teachers and support personnel losing their jobs, class sizes growing, and entire programs ranging from elementary arts classes to adult education facing the budget ax, it's hard to ask for investments in facilities. The urgency is lost in light of so many other pressing needs.

Yet there is of course another answer.

In the case of Florence Griffith-Joyner that answer took the form of the Wasserman Media Group and the Wasserman Foundation. The Wasserman Group was planning a Day-of-Service at Florence Griffith-Joyner. Numerous businesses and organizations have Days-of-Service during which their employees and staff come to an inner city school for a day of team building and beautification through painting, planting and other projects. These are wonderful events during which an organization's staff gets to meet, help and interact with children from a facet of life often very different than their own.

The Wasserman Group wanted to do a Day-of-Service at Florence Griffith-Joyner because they could see it needed a lot TLC, but they wanted to do more than paint murals and plant fledgling flowers, or the usual activities for these things. Wasserman wanted to make a more impactful difference in the lives of the 900 children who attend Griffith-Joyner, the vast majority of whom reside in the nearby Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts housing projects.

After several visits to the school, a comprehensive re-landscaping, signage and painting plan was created and the Wasserman group committed to a makeover of the school as the locus of their Day-of-Service. The cement rings were repaired or cleared by jackhammer, dug out, repaired, and then five mature Carrotwood trees were planted. The makeshift student entrance at the rear of the school was re-vamped with a new blacktop cover, new hedges, custom-built redwood planters with four-foot hedges to cover industrial equipment, and a new, purpose-built brick planter to hold a new entrance sign.

At the front of the school, new paint and signage in the form of sleek aluminum letters replaced the old, dirty signage that had been there for decades. The school's outdoor pillars were painted a fanciful coral color, the handball courts got bright murals made from stress resistant paint, and professional drilling equipment was brought in to turn the soil in the abandoned courtyards and plant low maintenance wild grass.

Much of the new signage, heavy painting and landscaping work was done by outside vendors paid for by the Wasserman Group, but the final plantings, mural paintings and overall cleanup were completed one day last October during which more than 60 employees, including CEO Casey Wasserman, came to Griffith-Joyner in t-shirts and shorts to finish the amazing gift they had made for the children, families, teachers and staff of this school. Price tag: Under $75,000. Impact: Immediate and long-term.

The unveiling of the made-over school that day was amazing. The faces of the children and parents showed not only joy for the beautiful new trees, fresh paint and redesigned school entrance, they let us know how grateful they were for the investment in their school. It's a source of pride.

In times like these, when public education is facing yet another year of drastic budget cuts, it doesn't take a lot for one company, one organization or one group to quickly lift the lives of our poorest children while at the same time creating a meaningful service experience for itself. It's precisely this sort of private-public involvement that will provide many of the resources public schools so desperately need in this age of never-ending cuts to education.

By Melanie Lundquist, Philanthropist & Civic Activist and Patrick Sinclair, Senior Director, Communications and External Affairs, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools