While I cannot speak to years prior, when I joined the Board of Education in 2009, school district relationships were often contentious. I had been forewarned to approach my fellow board members, school district neighbors, and especially township committee members with caution.
Since Superintendent Tom Smith and I started at the same time, we agreed on a similar approach. Namely, we acknowledged that we needed to work with anyone who would advance the interests of our school district, regardless of past history.
Thinking back on those early days, I suspect Vanessa viewed me with similar trepidation and distrust, but we were both pragmatic. As long as district and municipal relationships were thawing and improvements could be achieved, it made sense to be civil.
Flash ahead eight years and Vanessa Sandom has been a proven friend to our community. Vanessa is first and foremost a problem solver who likes getting things done. She has little patience for roadblocks, and is not afraid to “put her money where her mouth is.” Further, she is visionary and always seemed to know the right people to connect to make things happen.
Here are some little-known highlights:
Saving Halloween. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged Hopewell Valley in a big way. Trees and power lines were down everywhere and many homes were without power. I mentioned to Vanessa that neighborhoods were unsafe and it was kind of sad that Halloween was ruined. She jumped on my passing comment and decided to save Halloween.
The idea was entirely Vanessa and I really didn’t think we’d pull it off. She called Heidi Kahme, who got Capital Health to step up with a location. I asked Tom Smith to send email alerts to notify families to come celebrate Halloween in the safety of the hospital. Vanessa called Mike Rothwell, who opened Pennington Market to us while the power was still out. We took giant bags candy and decorations from the darkened store… and brought it to Capital Health.
Hundreds of smiling families showed up dressed in their costumes. Parents arrived with additional bags of candy to donate back to our makeshift Halloween. It was a fantastic event that turned out like a made-for-TV movie.
Ackerson Field Location. While most people know that we broke ground on Ackerson Field in 2012, many are unaware of the history in 2011. Initially, the turf field was proposed to be located next to the senior parking lot off of Pennington-Harbourton Road. The controversial location drew vocal objections and potential lawsuits.
The district was grateful that the Recreation Foundation raised a million dollars in cash and in-kind donations to get the turf field, but we did not have money to offer support for alternatives. We met with Pennington-Harbourton neighbors to broker a compromise, and Bob Geiger came in with drawings that proved that even if we raised additional money, we would be unable to ever get stadium seating in the future without violating setback rules. He and others endorsed previous district plans to instead locate the turf field behind Mercer County Library. Since we already had drawings and estimates for that location, we knew the proposal would be cost-prohibitive, because it would require relocating our baseball field.
When I relayed that we would need to shoehorn the field into a spot that made everyone unhappy because we couldn’t afford the ideal space, Vanessa Sandom had the idea to have the township provide alternative funding from Capital Health PILOT funds to relocate the baseball field. Allen Cannon sold the move to the Recreation Foundation. Mayor Michael Markulec rallied support from the community and township committee.
Every time I go to Ackerson field, I always recall going out almost daily to watch Mike Ackerson pour his heart and soul into building that field; and gratitude to donors and community for a perfect location for a stadium. Almost the minute it was built, I forgot how the area looked previously, since the stadium seems made for that space.
Multiple Arbor Days. Vanessa is an environmentalist and enjoyed involving school children in the celebrations. In 2013, she had the township sponsor a Township Arbor Day contest. School children from across the Valley submitted art and read poetry. The township kept the artwork up and gave the winner a pizza party at their school. To this day, the beautiful Arbor Day mosaic is still displayed at Bear Tavern School.
Each year, Vanessa worked with different landscape companies to donate full-size trees to the township. We have a beautiful tree at the entrance of the back Timberlane fields thanks to Vanessa and The Green Scene.
Oxen For Every School. The Hopewell Valley Arts Council initiated their first public arts project known as The Stampede. The community loved and participated in the final projects, but probably was unaware of early efforts to make it happen.
Each ox required an initial sponsorship that paid for the fiberglass ox, supplies to decorate and weatherproof, a small stipend for artists, and other overhead costs. Arts Council founders believed that district school participation would spark excitement from both school children and the community. Unfortunately, efforts to gain sponsorships for schools fell short.
Capital Health sponsored the CHS ox and Hopewell Valley Community Bank sponsored the Tollgate ox. When no other sponsors appeared, Arts Council members Liza Morehouse and Vanessa Sandom stepped up and paid the hefty sponsorships to allow the remaining HVRSD schools the opportunity to participate. As we all know, the Stampede and oxen auction were a tremendous success and did indeed bring fun, whimsy and community bonding and awareness to our Valley.
Vanessa Sandom provided other help and guidance over the years and we hope that when she leaves the Township Committee at the end of the year, she knows that we value her personal contributions to our schools.
Lisa Wolff is president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education.