It’s the late 1970s, the heyday of high school hijinks. Rubber chickens dangle from campus flag poles. Toilets are dismembered in their stalls. Graffiti raiders tag rival schools. What’s supposed to be spirited, yet friendly, competition around football teams and mascots devolves into mayhem and misdemeanors, now memorialized in movies like Dazed and Confused and The Breakfast Club.
Up until then, Greenville’s high schools were no different. But about 40 years ago, all that destruction and detention turned, improbably, into what has become a fundraising juggernaut. Here’s the story of Spirit Week, a tradition said to be unlike any other anywhere else.
Spirit Week started in 1978, when the storied rivalry between Wade Hampton and Eastside high schools finally flew off the rails. One night, some Wade Hampton football players salted the Eagles’ field. Then a handful of Eastside kids retaliated with a “decorating mission” at the Generals’ stadium.
“There was a large general on a horse painted on the press box that faced the student parking lot,” according to a document whose provenance we can’t reveal. “When the students arrived the next day, the horse’s genitals had been greatly enhanced.”
After that, competitive high school spirit came alive in Greenville. Brodie Bricker started as principal at Eastside in 1977, the year before the series of unfortunate events. He’s retired now but remembers when he and his colleagues decided that, rather than punishing the perps, they’d turn the rivalry into redemption.
“I got together with the Wade Hampton principal and our student body president and said, ‘Hey, guys, let’s get together and do something.’”
Spirit Week was born. During the first one, students sold construction-paper strips for a $1 apiece, ultimately stapling together a chain. It was decided the money raised would go to charity, announced during the height of high schools’ competitiveness: the Friday night football game. “That first year at halftime,” Bricker says, “the student body president of Eastside and the student body president of Wade Hampton walked side by side onto the field until the chain ran out.”
“To see how creative these high school students were, they turned anything they potentially could into a fundraising opportunity.”
Jane Robelot, now an anchor at WYFF, was there. “The class with the longest chain won,” WHHS’s then senior-class president says now. “Of course the seniors won.” She doesn’t remember where the money went, but over at Eastside, Bricker recalls the Eagles raised $3,500.
Millions of dollars later, fourteen Greenville County high schools run their own Spirit Week, which typically leads up to fall’s biggest football game. Long before the week itself, students spend hours, often meeting through the summer, to prepare. Students select a charity, a different one every year, through a process every bit as rigorous as one you’d expect to see in a major philanthropic foundation.
During their Spirit Week last year, the Generals chose Greenville’s Shriners Hospital for Children. The students hauled in an astonishing $251,376.12. “I don’t think ‘wow’ really covers it,” says Paul Finelli, the hospital’s director of development. “There are adult organizations that have not been able to raise that much money in one year for a charitable organization, let alone a group of high school students. It’s pretty exemplary.”
Obviously, generating that much money requires more than construction paper. “To see how creative these high school students were, they turned anything they potentially could into a fundraising opportunity,” Finelli says, “and they had a blast doing it.”
Eastside’s current student body president Daa’iyah Fogle, a 17-year-old senior, says she’s been involved with Spirit Week since her freshman year. She has seen the Eagles raise money with an ’80s-themed date night, a Sadie Hawkins Dance, a dog show, 5K run, golf tournament, talent showcase with 15 acts, and after-school events. This year, Eastside raised $118,130.62, says Sandy Mitchell, the school’s attendance clerk and alumni-relations staffer. The money went to the Cancer Society of Greenville—once again, a local organization that keeps Spirit Week funds in the community. “We decided that cancer affects so many people,” Fogle says. “Everyone knows a family member or friend or someone who has maybe fought cancer or survived or has passed away from cancer.”
Of students’ charitable choices, Mitchell says, “It’s something that has struck a chord or has really touched their hearts, and it’s easy for those kids to focus on why we’re raising money. Whether we’re raising $200 or $120,000, it’s not how much money we raise, it’s what we’re raising money for.”
Everyone involved—students, administrators, beneficiaries—says Spirit Week’s bundling of competition, creativity, compassion, and community means far more and lasts much longer than mischievousness with mascots. Finelli sees the tradition as “breeding a philanthropic spirit.”
“They’re never going to forget their Spirit Week competitions. They’re never going to forget the amount of money they raised for charity, and they’re going to always think about the impact of their giving.”