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Volunteers transform city school’s drab walls into watery wonderland



Andrew Benningtworks mural second floor Otis Elementary School.  More than 300 Digitas employees volunteered paint murals throughout school Oct.

Andrew Bennington works on a mural on the second floor of Otis Elementary School. More than 300 Digitas employees volunteered to paint murals throughout the school on Oct. 17, 2013.Peter Holderness | Sun-Times

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Updated: November 22, 2013 6:29AM

Paintbrushes in hand, a small army of volunteers conducted a blitzkrieg attack Thursday morning on the drab beige and brown that covered the walls of Otis Elementary like a permanent sulk.

In the span of five hours, 320 ad agency workers from Digitas Chicago — allowed to play hooky for a good cause — replaced the dull colors with shades of ocean blue and murals of octopuses and other marine creatures to light up the hallways of the West Town school like a Shedd Aquarium exhibit.

After absorbing about 180 students this year from nearby Peabody Elementary, which was closed along with dozens of other schools, Otis Principal Jaime Sanchez wanted to create, essentially, a new school everyone could call their own.

“We are merging the two and getting both communities to understand: ‘It’s not the old school anymore. It’s now a new school,’ ” Sanchez said.

All 620 students were sent on field trips during the grand color swap.

About 80 kids got a sneak preview Thursday afternoon before the “big reveal” Friday morning.

Third-grader Andre Martinez imagined eating lunch in the cafeteria, which is lined with murals.

“It will be like when you’re swimming in the sea. . . . It feels like if you’re actually in the painting,” he said.

“It’s just beautiful,” third-grader Valeria Martinez said.

“It makes me want to cry,” said Valeria’s mother, Flor Martinez. “It was gloomy before.”

Valeria’s dad, Octavio Martinez, chair of the Local School Council, also approved: “It shows progress, we are moving forward since we merged with Peabody.”

Several tactile murals also were affixed to the walls. They’re made of furry carpet, smooth bottle caps and other peculiar objects to pique the curiosity of about 80 visually impaired and autistic students.

The one-day feat was accomplished by “a symphony of moving bodies,” Sanchez said.

Platoons of 20-somethings painted as a DJ mixed beats.

Digitas Chicago President Doug Ryan, who annually unleashes his troops for charitable causes, summed up the experience.

“On an average Thursday, sometimes you’re just glad to get through the day, right? But I think today we’ll feel probably something a little different. . . . We’ll, I think, look back with a smile and feel like, ‘Well, at least for a little moment, we did something special,’ ” he said.

Corps Giving, a company that pairs corporate volunteers with organizations in need, matched the two groups.

“If I could encourage other businesses to adopt this kind of model, I would highly encourage it,” Sanchez said.

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