In April 2009, Greg Perry accepted the first annual Heart of Green Local Hero Award, for his work to develop, with his high school students, the Green Dream and the Ultimate Green Classroom. At the time of the awards, he was unsteady, having just been through intense chemotherapy. His work as a teacher is an inspiration, as is his recovery, and his acceptance speech. We're happy to say that Greg is back in the classroom -- which is a good thing for him, for his students and for the wider community. Here's his story.
Greg Perry graduated from Ohio State University with a joint degree in marketing and education confident he would never teach. To him, the education degree was just a bulwark against the recession, so there are probably few people as surprised as Perry that before the age of 40, he would have drawn national attention for his teaching, orchestrated the building of a model classroom and inspired his students to launch the largest green business expo ever staged in Ohio.
Perry teaches an innovative high school marketing class in Beachwood, Ohio, a city of about 12,000 in the Cleveland suburbs. Students from several area schools commute (it's the right word) to Beachwood High School for a class unlike any other. Elected executive officers help Perry run the class, and for much of the year, the focus is on lining of exhibitors for The Green Dream, the green business expo that is expected to draw more than 6,000 people this Spring (April 16-17 at the Beachwood Community Center).
"Sales people are making phone calls to line up exhibitors in the expo. Finance is handling the contracts and payments. Marketing and Communications and Publications and Websites and trying to promote the message. HR is evaluating and incentivizing," Perry said. "It's more like a day at work than a day at the classroom. By doing these large projects, they learn about branding, advertising, management styles and marketing techniques without ever picking up the textbooks."
The class staged the first Green Dream, with 69 exhibitors and 2,200 in attendance, in 2008. In 2009, it grew to capacity, with 75 exhibitors and 4,000 attendees.
"The craziest thing looking back is that we were able to convince real businesses to give their money to 18-year-olds with nothing to show. He instilled so much confidence in us to go out and talk to these people," said Ethan Rush, a sophomore Finance major at Kent State, and the president of the class that organized the first Green Dream. "That was always what he helped us do to aim high. And the other thing he taught me was that the worst thing that could happen was they'd say 'no.'"
Photo: The Green Dream cardboard art, by Mark Langan.
The yeses have outweighed the nos. Cumulatively, the events have raised $200,000, and the money not only pays for the following year's expo, but also the renovation of Perry's classroom as a model green student and community space. They call it the Ultimate Green Classroom, but it would be unrecognizable to most public school students used to cold cinder block and rows of desks: From the flooring and the cabinets to the full kitchen and board room-style furniture, everything exhibits eco-friendly and energy-efficient attributes. When not in the classroom, Perry runs his own interior design company, Re-Design, and he coached the students in choosing houseplants and bright lime greens and vivid blues (all low-VOC paints, of course) to create a naturally invigorating atmosphere. The chairs alone would be the envy squirming students everywhere, let alone the state-of-the-art air filter.
Beyond making an environment comfortable for the students and their teacher, the classroom has the larger aim of inspiring environmentally friendly changes at other schools. The first tangible example of success: The Beachwood school board has committed to a $30 million LEED-certified rebuilding of its high school. Other districts are taking note, and the classroom's dual nature as a classroom and community space has helped inspire hundreds of visitors.
"This classroom is going to be multiplied by 50," Perry said. "Not every one will be done to this extent, but every classroom will need floors, chairs, smartboard equipment, tiles, paint. Those are things we can easily take out of here and transfer across the district."
Beyond the classroom, Perry's working with the City of Beachwood and its chamber of commerce to create a Green Leadership Alliance, which is also serving as a model for other communities.
"It's so commonplace now, but it wasn't three years ago, and Greg and the students of the first class shook everybody and dusted off this whole green concept and took it to the forefront," said Karen Carmen, the city's community services director. "I think they were instrumental in bringing the green initiative to Beachwood."
The success of the project is all the more impressive because of the personal obstacles that Perry has overcome. In January 2008, three months before the first Green Dream expo would take place, he was diagnosed with cancer. Treatment didn't keep him out of the classroom, and he spent the summer renovating the Ultimate Green Classroom, working with students who had already graduated (their commitment that summer is an impressive measure of his inspirational teaching, as any graduate could confirm). But just two weeks after the ribbon-cutting ceremony in October 2008, he learned the cancer had spread, and he began an intense treatment that sapped his strength and transformed him, physically, into a shadow of his former self.
He didn't let his illness keep him from his work in the classroom, though. The school district lined up substitutes, but Perry kept in touch daily, either through text messages, emails, phone calls or Skype conversations.
"He was an inspiration," Rush said.
The Daily Green learned of Perry's struggles and success from his students, who nominated him for the site's first Local Hero award. It was only days after leaving the intensive care unit in April 2009 that Perry boarded a plane to attend the site's Heart of Green Awards. The promise of the award, and the upcoming Green Dream, gave him strength in a difficult period of his recovery.
"We circled those two dates and said, 'I need to get out of the nursing home for the Green Dream and we need to get me walking enough to get to New York City,'" Perry said. "Seeing those two dates in front of me and knowing what was pushing me to get better really made a huge impact. If you ask my physical therapists, that day when we found out about the award, I said 'I need to out of here by April 17 and walking by April 23,' they both looked at me and said, 'Only you can make that happen.' I said, 'I will make that happen.'"
In the last year, Perry has recovered much of his strength, returned fulltime to his classroom, restarted his interior design business and purged his life of many of the artifacts that remind him of his two years of illness. He'll return to New York City April 20, with several students, to hand out the 2010 Heart of Green Local Hero Award, to be chosen from the 26 heroes nominated by The Daily Green's audience.
"I'm starting to feel more like myself," he said.
Back to normal, for Greg Perry, is something truly extraordinary.
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