Williston High School’s drama department was left speechless on Wednesday, courtesy of a generous donation from the Williston Community Builders.

Members of the organization met up with Drama Director Eric Rooke and members of the department on Wednesday, Jan. 15, as the members of the group surprised Rooke with the donation.

Rooke said he “heard through the grapevine” that a donation to the department was forthcoming, but had no idea just what he was in for until the Builders arrived with the giant check. The funds came from the Williston Community Builder’s annual Festival of Trees event, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for local nonprofits and organizations.

Community Builders Vice President Codi Austreim said the organization likes to pick a theme each year for their donations, and this year they chose to focus on arts and entertainment related groups.

“When we talked arts and entertainment, we couldn’t help but think of the Williston High School drama program,” Austreim told Rooke. “You guys have grown this program exponentially and you do a lot of really great things for the community. So, we feel that this donation to you guys is going to impact a lot of students, but also the community at large that will come here to watch your performances.”

Austreim and the other members had been hiding the check from Rooke’s sight, but as they turned it around and presented it, Rooke’s jaw dropped as he saw the amount. Expecting “maybe $1,000,” Rooke said he was blown away as the Builders handed over a donation for $42,500. Rooke’s drama students, as well as his fellow directors, yelled in surprise and stood in shock as Austreim revealed the amount.

“I’m fighting back tears, just so you all know!” Rooke said as he and his students posed with the large check. “I am so, so thankful and so grateful for what you guys do for the community. This is just unreal. My heart is just full right now.”

Austreim said she and the other members of the Community Builders are passionate about giving back to organizations in the region that they feel make the community a better place and help enrich the area’s overall quality of life.

“We feel like the community has blessed us in so many ways,” she told the Williston Herald. “We know that giving back is important and if we can make this place better and make people who move here feel welcome and make people want to be involved kind of like us, then we feel like it’s a win-win and the community is better for it.”

As for Rooke’s plans for the drama department, he said this donation will go a long way towards improving virtually every aspect of the drama department. From state of the art lighting and sound equipment, to improved sets and backdrops, Rooke said the sky is the limit as to what the department will be able to do.

“That number was something I just can’t even fathom as to how far that’s going to go to really impact our students and our program,” Rooke said. “We’re going to be spending that money in a really wise way that will impact not just this show, but the next 10, 12 or 15 shows. We want to spend it in a way that helps our kids and helps our program grow.”

Rooke’s theater program has been immensely successful, with productions such as Shrek and Mary Poppins selling out the high school’s theater nearly every performance. That success, he said, is thanks to the community’s support, not just for the school’s theater program, for the arts throughout the region.

“To sell over 1,800 seats for a show in a high school production is so impressive,” he said. “It says a lot about our community and the support our community has for the arts and for our kids. They see that our kids are working hard, and they want to come and support that and encourage that growth and I love that. I love that about Williston. Williston supports our arts so very well, and they’ve always done a nice job of supporting the arts, so they deserve a big thanks as well.”

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