WESTERLY — Sandy Wheeley stood over an enormous machine in the middle of the Ivory Ella warehouse Thursday afternoon, watching carefully as Orlando “Trey” Gonzalez gave her instructions on how to use a six-color screen printing press.
Ivory Ella print specialist Jay Reid, stood nearby, beaming as he surveyed the scene.
A high school teacher from Lawrence County High school in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Wheeley and her friend Angie Bowden, had been flown to Rhode Island, courtesy of Ivory Ella on an all-expenses paid junket to learn how to use the thousands of dollars worth of new equipment donated to her classroom back in Tennessee, thanks to Reid and his “Pay it Forward Project.”
“We made a great connection,” said a smiling Reid. “Sandy is an amazing, amazing person.”
Reid, a Waterford native, laughed after he explained — a little sheepishly at first— how he came to meet Wheeley and learn of her classroom needs.
It all began with a friendly competition, said Reid, a competition sponsored by Wearables, a magazine for screen printing professionals, held online last May.
The “Wearables T-Shirt Challenge for Charity” was designed to highlight some of the charities dear to the hearts of its readers. Apparel decorators were asked to choose an item created for a nonprofit or specific fundraiser, along with background details about the garment and submit it for review. The Wearables editorial staff then reviewed all the entries and selected nine finalists.
Westerly’s Ivory Ella, which donates 10 percent of its net profits to the Save the Elephants organization, was chosen for Reid’s stunning design featuring elephants in an orange, yellow and black background. The company produced 10,000 T-shirts and raised $1,131,717.
From Tennessee, Wheeley’s graphic design class was chosen for the purple and pink T-shirt featuring a whimsical playground design and the words “Abigail’s Plan.” Abigail’s Plan is an organization started by Abigail Kidd, a girl with Down Syndrome who dreamed of playing baseball. The organization was developed to raise money for a rubberized baseball field compatible with equipment designed for children with special needs. To support the cause, Wheeley designed the T-shirts, which were then printed by her graphics class. The class produced 10,000 T-shirts and raised $75,000 for Abigail’s plan.
Wearables then invited readers to take an online poll during the month of May, to decide the winner.
Reid, determined to make sure Ivory Ella placed first, called on the company’s thousands of fans to participate in the poll. Every day, he said, he monitored the vote, reminding supporters to log on and click the button for Ivory Ella. Every day he was surprised that a small school in the middle of nowhere could keep up with an organization with a global following and international reputation.
“We ran neck and neck throughout the contest,” said Reid. “She really did have me beat.”
But a last minute call to action, pushed Ivory Ella over the edge.
“In the end we won,” said Reid. Well. sort of.
Reid said he didn’t feel quite right about the victory. As soon as the results were announced, he contacted the magazine and asked for Wheeley’s contact information. He said he wanted to get in touch with the teacher and offer his congratulations for leading such a hard fought, close race.
Once the two connected, a relationship of a lifetime was forged.
There was something about Whalley, Reid said. Something rare and something unmeasurable. Something no contest or competition could weigh. Reid was so impressed by Wheeley, her dedication to her students and the quality of her students’ work, that he was moved to action … especially when he learned of Wheeley’s struggles to keep her design program going.
“That’s when I knew Ivory Ella had to jump in to help,” said Reid, who immediately contacted several Ivory Ella suppliers, and explained the situation. Before long the donations began pouring in.
“We ended up traveling down to her town… to her school,” said Reid, “and surprising her with donations for the classroom and donations for Abigail’s Plan.”
Reid arrived in Tennessee with nearly $60,000 worth of screen printing equipment and supplies and original designs for Wheeley’s digital design program. Reid also brought along Ivory Ella gift bags and 300 custom printed shirts — with a retail value of $9,000 — for Abigail’s Plan to sell.
“It was top secret,” said Reid, who made the presentation. “She had no idea.”
Reid admitting to feeling nervous when he saw 1,500 people pour into the auditorium.
“But they put a microphone in my hand,” he said, “and I killed it. It was like an Ellen Degeneres show.”
While he was in Tennessee, Reid had another chance to pay it forward. When he learned about the plight of BraxtonCheatwood, a student at Wheeley’s school, who was battling a brain tumor, and learned of Cheatwood’s love of Nashville Predators Goalie PekkaRinne, he hatched a plan. Reid worked with the Predators who made it possible for the entire Cheatwood family to be guests of Rinne — in his suite — during a game. Braxton also received an autographed game jersey from Rinne.
“My hope all along was maybe they’d make a donation to Abigail’s Plan,” said Wheeley, in her lilting Tennessee drawl. “But now, all students… for as long as my program runs… and long after I am there, I hope… it changes the lives of every student who walks through the door. Now they have real equipment.”
“Here I am being trained by the best of the best,” she said. “That’s absolutely incredible.”
Wheeley said her town is so out of the way, “We’re not even on the Interstate.”
“We’re not close to anything,” she added. “We’re just a little town forty-five minutes away from anywhere. But we do have a great spirit and a great community.”
“This is a perfect way to live out our company motto of ‘Good Clothes for Good Causes’,” said John Allen, chief executive officer of Ivory Ella. “Not only are we investing in a great program, we are supporting the future leaders of our country and of our industry.”
“Jay is the kind of employee who symbolizes an Ivory Ella employee,” said Matt Fiano, a fomer teacher, who co-founded Ivory Ella with Allen. “He symbolizes our core values. Like elephants, we’re about strength, and leadership, caring and compassion.”
“We are really, really proud of Jay,” Fiano added. “And proud to support a program that is sustainable.”
“I may have lost that contest,” said Wheeley, “but I came out on the better end of this.”
The frosting on the cake, Wheeley said, was learning days ago that Braxton’s tumor had disappeared.
“It’s a miracle,” she said through tears. “All a miracle.”