Community Leader Transforms Loss and Division into Unity with Writing Competition
Above: Diana Tarpoff displays an assortment of ribbons and keepsakes from the writing competition named for her daughter.
In 1984, Tarpoff lived in the Bailey District In East Lansing. Her two daughters—Sarah and Polo—attended Bailey School. Tarpoff had previously taught at Central School and was a member of the Parent Teacher Organization. Bailey and Central were slated to close that year. Schisms formed as the community worried about the loss of neighborhood schools. Divides worsened and tensions peaked when Bailey and Central shuttered for good at the end of the academic year.
Then, two days before starting 5th grade at Marble Elementary, Sarah died. She was 10 and was killed in a horseback riding accident. The Bailey community responded with compassion. Donations were made in Sarah’s memory. While grieving, the Tarpoff family looked to heal and move forward.
“They say it’s not what happens but what you do with what happens,” says Tarpoff. “We wanted to do something positive, and looked to start a foundation that would benefit the schools and the community.”
Healing the divide
Within months of Sarah’s death, Tarpoff channeled Sarah’s memorial donations into the Liberty Hyde Bailey Educational Foundation. She envisioned the organization as a way to reunite a community divided by loss.
“I saw the foundation as a way to heal,” says Tarpoff. “It was much more than simply the Liberty Hyde Bailey Educational Foundation. People were so angry about the schools closing. This was a way to mend the schism. It was also a way for us as a family to heal by contributing what was given to us in Sarah’s memory.”
The foundation’s first activity consisted of a district-wide competition, based on Sarah’s passion for writing. Launched in early 1985, the Sarah Tarpoff Creative Writing Award invited students within the East Lansing school district and at St. Thomas Aquinas School to create and enter an original piece of fiction, poetry or an essay. Each submission would be judged according to a rubric and receive a participation ribbon. All students, too, were considered for first, second, third or honorable mention ribbons.
In the first year, 300 students in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade put pencil to paper. Tarpoff collected all the entries, took them home, and with the help of parent volunteers, read and evaluated them at her kitchen table. After participation awards were announced, “blue ribbon” entries were compiled into a comb-bound book for the public and school libraries. In later years, award-winning entries were also featured in celebratory calendars.
Above: a collection of memorabilia from the Sarah Tarpoff Creative Writing Award. The green ribbon second from the left is the very first ribbon from the contest. The third ribbon from the left is the first bearing the name of the newly-formed East Lansing Educational Foundation.
The competition took off and grew exponentially. The intensity led Tarpoff to transform the foundation in name and scope, and to involve more teachers, administrators and volunteers in the contest logistics. In 1986, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Educational Foundation evolved into the East Lansing Educational Foundation, and has become the steward of funds raised for educational programs not supported by taxes and state allocations in all East Lansing schools.
“Most of us recognize that teachers never have enough for their classroom’s basic needs,” says Tarpoff. “I wanted to move the foundation up a notch, to provide something separate from the school board and administration. The foundation is a source of creative funding that’s not constrained, and that makes our school district stand out.”
Born to give
Tarpoff’s vision for the East Lansing Educational Foundation reflects her commitment to Greater Lansing and to supporting causes related to education, youth, families, animal welfare and the environment. She’s the great granddaughter of automotive pioneer R.E. Olds, and the president of the R.E. Olds Foundation—the oldest private family foundation in Michigan.
Tarpoff learned the importance of community giving from her grandmother, Gladys Olds Anderson. Although Tarpoff and her sister spent their childhood playing in the R.E. Olds Mansion, or being chauffeured to occasional events, she wasn’t to the manor born.
“I never realized the significance of our family,” she says. “We were pretty low key and raised to serve the greater good.”
Tarpoff says her grandmother led by example. “Gaga,” as Tarpoff called her, donated the land to establish the Woldumar Nature Center, as well as land for the Ebersol Center, a nature camp southwest of town for students in the Lansing School District. She was also a champion of the YWCA, working nationally but supporting local causes.
“We’re very rooted in the non-profit sector of the community,” says Tarpoff of the R.E. Olds family. “We consider ourselves stewards of a legacy. My sister and I determined that legacy should stay in this area. This is where the money was earned. This is where it stays.”
Tarpoff’s point-of-view extends to her vision for ELEF. A long-time resident of East Lansing, she remains interested in the schools and foundation projects—both as a retired elementary school educator, literacy tutor, and alumna of the city’s schools.
“Children are really important in my life,” says Tarpoff. “And finding ways to help support children who go through traumatic situations is very important to me, too. Children who write bring out experiences through their writing that can be another pathway to healing. It’s a way to share an experience and not be so isolated.”
Tarpoff eventually transitioned the coordination of the annual contest to ELEF. Today, an adept team comprised of a retired educator, a high school teacher, and dozens of high school students ensure the Sarah Tarpoff Creative Writing Award continues its course as an annual district-wide event.
Five years ago, the East Lansing Educational Foundation invited former East Lansing teacher Cathy Clugston to handle the competition’s logistics. Every February through April, the former Red Cedar and Donley teacher distributes hundreds of entry forms to schools throughout the district. In May, she picks up entries and delivers armloads of stories, poems and essays to a classroom of high school students in Advanced Placement English.
“I believe in Diana’s quest to continue the memory of her daughter by encouraging students to write,” says Clugston, who taught second through sixth grade for 39 years. “It takes courage to write and put yourself out there and have someone read it. And when you look at writing, sometimes the celebration of what you’ve done is the most important part.”
That celebration, Clugston says, begins with the feedback provided to young writers by students taking Tim Aker’s AP Language and Composition class at East Lansing High School. Clugston asked Akers three years ago if his students would be interested in reading, judging and providing constructive criticism to Sarah Tarpoff participants.
“I thought it was a very nice move to involve high school students in the process,” says Akers, a 12-year veteran of teaching English at the high school. “My students seem to have a vested interest in the competition since many were previous participants themselves.”
About 70 to 90 students take AP English from Akers each year. Most judge entries toward the end of May after the AP exam is out of the way. Akers provides students with the rubric for judging entries, and reinforces the principles for evaluating writing they learned in his class.
“They’re seeing things from the other side now,” he says. “We talk about the value of this being a community activity, and they understand they’re playing an adult role now. They’re also getting an appreciation for the difficulty a teacher has in evaluating a piece of writing. It brings things full circle.”
Senior Eleanor Carr was among the dozens of students involved in judging the 758 Sarah Tarpoff entries at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. Carr says she welcomed being involved in evaluating the entries, and that it was a unique way to decompress after the rigors of the AP test. She also enjoyed noting the differences in writing across grade levels, and was struck by themes, tones and ideas she saw.
“I thought it was a cool opportunity to be a judge because I had been in the competition back when I was in sixth grade at Glencairn,” she says. “The idea that I could give back and support the philosophy behind the contest was an honor. I think if more students knew how the process worked, and how students are involved in judging, it would make that district-wide connection even stronger.”
Click here to view selection of first-place entries from the Sarah Tarpoff Creative Writing awards or visit the East Lansing Educational Foundation website at www.elef.us. Comb-bound volumes of entries over the decades can also be found at the East Lansing Public Library.
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