SBLI believes that supporting our communities is fundamental to the families we promise to protect

Shawna Crist
Niceville, FL

Whole Life Insurance


May 15, 2012

It's no small coincidence that Shawna Crist hails from a town called Niceville. Named the outstanding adult volunteer in a regional school recognition program this year, it's mainly her ongoing efforts to make things, well, nice that landed her the coveted title.

Crist's crusade began when the oldest of her two daughters started kindergarten at the Florida town's Plew Elementary. "The academics are top-notch at Plew," says the former teacher. "But the school is over 40 years old and was looking a little frumpy. It desperately needed love and attention." She and another mom set out to make the surroundings warm and inviting. They painted large terra cotta pots in fun colors, planted them with bright flowers, and positioned them around the campus. They received such positive feedback that a revitalization project was launched.

Crist was successful in getting numerous businesses to donate materials. She worked in conjunction with a local nursery and also recruited artist friends to paint murals. “The transformation has been so dramatic that now people from other schools come to see what we’ve done so they can bring the same dynamic to their own schools,” she says proudly.

From there, it seemed a natural progression to start a recycling program at the school. Crist credits her teaching background for the inspiration. "I just hate to see waste. I think it's important for kids to learn to recycle at an early age because they will inherit this earth." She learned something of value, too—some of the recyclables could be turned into cash to help fund the school beautification project. Soon each classroom boasted a recycling bin and the school had its own recycling dumpster. A green routine was established, and it ran without incident for four years until a contest came along and shook things up.

In 2011, the school signed up for a corporate-sponsored recycling contest called the Dream Machine Recycle Rally. The objective: Win a school makeover by collecting the highest average number of recyclable nonalcoholic beverage bottles and cans per student. The winner would receive $100,000 in funding for green school improvements. As soon as Crist got wind of that, she had Plew Elementary on board. "Little did I know what we were really getting into," she says ruefully. "It turned out to be this huge, overwhelming, all-life-encompassing project...but it was really worthwhile."

Contest sponsors sent the school a laptop and handheld scanners to keep count of the recyclables as they rolled in. Crist rounded up a core group of 12 volunteers who got the word out to the community. They were thrilled when they collected 1,000 items the first week. It was a mere drop in the bucket. Community support grew exponentially, and by the end of the school year the volunteers were scanning between 13,000 and 15,000 bottles and cans a day. "It was kind of comical," Crist says. "We would work from 8 till 2:30 every day scanning items. We were knee-deep in recyclable stuff."

To collect that many items, volunteers combed through the trash at community sporting events and fanned out across neighborhoods on garbage days to snap up recyclables. The school placed collection bins all over town and at any business that would help support their cause.

Plew proudly held first place in the nation for several months, and at final tally had recycled well over 1.6 million items. Although they ultimately lost to a school in Chicago, Crist never once felt that their efforts were in vain. "We gave it our very best shot, but for me, changing the minds of people in our community who weren't recycling before and are now...that's what it was really all about."

She applies the same logic to all her volunteerism. "It's not about you. It's bigger than you are," she says. "When my youngest daughter leaves Plew, we will have left it a better place than when we got there. And I think that's always, really, what you're supposed to do. You know, leave it a better place." A nicer place, in other words.

Writer: June Allan Corrigan
Photo: Tom Holloway