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Looking to examples in the past with milk and art to make a difference today in education

My world has changed enough to make me realize that I may never influence national policy or solve the problem of climate change, but I can make a difference in my neighborhood. I can make a difference in my school.

Amy Choate-Nielsen has found that while she may not be able to solve national or global issues, she can make a difference in her neighborhood and her child’s school.

I sat in a board of directors meeting of the Utah PTA recently, and I overheard an interesting conversation between two leaders who oversee thousands of PTA volunteers.

They were talking about a few struggling schools where the parents were having a hard time getting organized and involved.

“We have to do something,” one leader said to the other. “We have to help them.”

I’m entering my second year of volunteering as the director of communications for the statewide PTA, and as a mother of fairly young children, I’ll admit the learning curve has been steep. When I first walked my eldest child to kindergarten six years ago, I had no idea why I should pay $5 to join a group of people who organized volunteers at the school. I figured if I read with the kids and signed up for story time like the teacher asked, that was good enough. Although, truth be told, I did volunteer once to help with a Halloween party and swore I’d never do it again after my toddler ate all of the classroom candy and I failed to get the kids to follow my instructions.

But then my world changed enough to make me realize that I may never influence national policy or solve the problem of climate change. I may never see eye to eye with whoever has the most power, and my voice may never be heard in the highest halls of the country. In truth, there are many things that are out of my reach and beyond my ability to fix, and that can be disheartening.

But I also realized I can make a difference in my neighborhood. I can make a difference in my school, and maybe even my state. But I couldn’t solve anything if I wasn’t involved, so I paid my dues, stepped in to see where I could help, and found myself at that board of directors meeting, where about 50 men and women met to talk about how to make the potential of every Utah child become a reality.

It is inspiring to see so many people volunteer so much of their time and expertise toward one goal. In that board room sat a retired superintendent working on education issues, two members currently serving on the board of education in their school districts, graphic designers, business leaders, teachers, substitutes, parents of children with special needs, grandparents, members of school community councils, event planners and collaborators with the Utah State Board of Education and every other pro-child program in Utah. And that’s just a sampling from one six-hour meeting. Their dedication is around the clock and voluntary; paid only with the hope of making a difference.

In that meeting, I watched a presentation from the Utah Division of Arts & Museums about ways to support art education, and I learned about another Utah woman who made a difference.

It turns out the Beehive State is home to the country’s first, and oldest, state-run arts agency. It was created in 1899, by Alice Merrill Horne, whose passions in life centered on two things: art and milk.

She helped establish more stringent standards for milk sold in stores in Utah, and she developed free milk stations across Salt Lake City to serve malnourished and underprivileged babies, according to Better Days 2020, a nonprofit organization dedicated to popularizing Utah women’s history.

“She might have been a member of the PTA,” a representative from the Utah Division of Arts & Museums joked as she explained to the board of directors how the legacy Horne established for preserving the arts continues today.

Horne was the third woman to be elected to the Utah State Legislature, and she ran a bill that would preserve art and culture in Utah for generations to come. Her vision was to create a state arts agency that could hold an annual art exhibition and purchase paintings for the people of Utah. After her legislation passed the House and Senate, the Utah Institute of Fine Arts, now known as the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, was created. To this day, the Utah Division of Arts & Museums curates a state-owned art collection, sponsors exhibitions and offers grants to local artists — including students.

Horne’s work earned her a Medal of Honor and qualified her to be the first inductee in the Salt Lake City Council of Women’s Hall of Fame.

I don’t plan to end up there, but through volunteering, I do plan to make a difference.

Amy Choate-Nielsen writes a bi-monthly column on her family experiences and lessons learned from her grandmother, Fleeta, who died before she was born.