Keith Hays has been to every Ooltewah High School home football game for four years - but only saw his first actual game two weeks ago.
Hays' Friday nights are spent in the concession stand, not the grandstand, where he volunteers with the Ooltewah High School Band Boosters. The only reprieve he's gotten from flipping hamburgers and frying Oreos was on Senior Night, when his son was among graduating musicians recognized by the band.
And when the concession stand closes for the night, Hays and other band boosters still aren't off the clock; they head into the stadium to pick up trash. As part of the boosters' agreement to receive funds for making and selling concessions, they must clean grandstands on both sides of the field after the game.
"We go up in the stands with our bags and gloves and pick up trash. By the time we get done, it's midnight when we leave," says Hays.
President of Ooltewah High School's Band Boosters, Hays has sold fruit, Yankee Candles and Christmas trees, washed cars, chaperoned band trips, worked concessions at Lookouts and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs games and built an assortment of props for the band's theme shows. So far this fall, he has easily invested several hundred hours, he estimates, and all in addition to his day job at MSA Digital Copier.
Four minutes to turn a football field into a winter wonderland.
That's the amount of time Ooltewah band parents have to race three fire pits, a 60-by-40-foot oval skating pond, 15 snow-laden trees and an arched stone bridge from the sidelines to the correct yard markers before the Ooltewah band steps off in a competition.
And you know when contest judges are scribbling "Great Props" in the margins of their adjudication sheets - which are meant to score and critique music and drill - the props are a hit.
We get those comments a lot because props allow us to set scenes," says Joel Denton, OHS band director. "Obviously we have to play and march well, but those are the things that set us apart and make us memorable.
"People across the country refer to us as 'grass theater' because we are not a typical marching band. We're producing a performance."
Each year, Ooltewah takes a themed show on the road to competitions, with this year's being "The Wonders of Winter." Here's what Band Booster President Keith Hays says parents did to set the stage.
• Designed props beginning in May when the fall theme was chosen.
• Props designed, built, redesigned and rebuilt during weekly meetings through June and July.
• Built three fire pits from aluminum window-frame material with fans inside to blow "flames" made from yellow and orange fabric strips. Fans can be turned on and off with flip of a switch by the color guard. "Logs" covering each side of the pits are actually pool noodles cut in half, attached to the aluminum box and spray painted brown so the pits are light enough to move quickly. The noodles require repainting before each performance.
• Cut 15 trees ranging in height from 8 to 10 feet, strip leaves from branches, spray paint them white and add cotton batting "snow" to the branches.
• Built aluminum rolling carts wide enough for three trees, attached trees to carts so they can quickly be rolled on and off field.
• Made a 60-by-40-foot oval "frozen pond" by painting billboard material white then shadowing with shades of blue paint. Band dads have continued to work on a raised, rolling platform to go underneath the pond, which Denton hopes to add before end of season.
• Boosters bought an arched, faux-stone "Central Park bridge" from an out-of-town winter guard, then remodeled it to add 16 pneumatic casters and snowy touches.
• Boosters bought faux-fur-trimmed skaters' costuming for color guard members.
But as a former band member himself, Hays believes in the importance of arts in an education.
Hays is just one example of band parents across the region who donate hours upon hours of time from summer through December to help fund their children's musical interests. As funding for arts programs in schools dries up, parents pick up the slack to make sure these enrichment opportunities continue, many doing so with hopes that participation in band or choral programs might lead to college scholarships for their children.
Ridgeland High School's Rhythm of the Ridges Band is marching in the New York City Veteran's Day Parade on Tuesday, but parents started planning and fundraising immediately after the school received the invitation in May.
"It's the biggest thing we've done since I've been here," says Rick Chambers, Ridgeland's band director for seven years.
Chambers says 98 students and 45 parents will make the trip. Its $865 price tag per person includes room, meals, two walking tours, sightseeing at the Statue of Liberty, Battery Park, Top of the Rock, the 9-11 Memorial and taking in a performance of Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular - yes, the one with the Rockettes.
To help pay for the trip, Band Boosters sold sponsorships, giving a family or friend the chance to pay $50 and have a veteran's name printed on the band's trailer or for a company to imprint its logo on it. That fundraiser pulled in more than $1,500.
"They've done everything in the world - held two roadblocks, sold fruit, donuts and suckers, worked concessions at Lookouts games and staffed parties and picnics at Lake Winnepesaukah," Chambers says. "The big thing we pushed was a motorcycle run where we generated sponsorships."
As Ridgeland's band has grown, parents continue to meet the accompanying challenges, he says.
"We bought $40,000 in uniforms five years ago and parents paid them off within a few months," he says. "Right now we are paying for instruments on a lease plan over five years for large equipment we need. It ended up being about $40,000 as well.
"People just do not know what band parents do. Those parents are up running sound equipment, on the sidelines moving equipment, running concessions, feeding kids and doctoring kids who go down. They get involved and make a difference."
Ooltewah parent Sherrie Forrest explains that parents must do so much fundraising "because we (the band) get no money from the school or Hamilton County system. Everything you see is funded by parents.
"This is why we are always trying to wash your car."
Sherrie and her husband, Joey, have an eighth-grader and a junior in the Ooltewah band. In addition to selling fruit, candles, Christmas trees and concessions, the couple has put a grill in their trailer to feed hamburgers to 100 band kids when on the road at marching competitions. They have made and served sandwiches and pushed props on and off fields at halftime.
Last summer, Joey cut down 15 trees on his property so the crew of band dads - nicknamed "Pit Dads" - could transform them into wintry props for this year's "Wonders of Winter" show.
"My husband has done a lot of prop building; I'd say at least a couple hundred hours volunteered so far this season," says Sherrie, who is closing in on 100 volunteer hours herself. "He has a full-time job, but he's been up until 3 in the morning a lot of times working on props."
When the Ironman triathlon was held in Chattanooga recently, Sherrie coordinated the 60 OHS band parents who volunteered to staff an aid station, handing out water to runners. To make the job fun, band parents dressed as their favorite superheroes. They earned $1,000 for staffing a booth and an additional $1,000 when their booth won Best Aid Station.
"Why do we do it?" she asks. "If we don't, who will?
"It's important to us for the kids to have good food on the trips, to have props that are safe as well as impressive. I've never seen anything like the friendships and camaraderie kids in the band have."
Ooltewah band students pay an annual fee of $1,250, which covers snacks, lunch and supper at three summer band camps and on all road trips as well as music, costuming, bus fees and accommodations on road trips when needed. Even so, Hays says fees only account for about 40 percent of the boosters' budget .
Ooltewah band director Joel Denton says three chartered buses to Atlanta for the Band of America Super Regional last month came to $10,500, and the band has gone to three BOA-endorsed competitions this fall. A planned trip to BOA Nationals in Indianapolis this weekend will cost $12,000 in bus fees.
"We try to hold our costs low, and we are fortunate to receive donations from the community, but our Booster Club has to raise a tremendous amount of money every year," says Denton. "It's truly amazing that they do. Parents fuel the band program."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.