Outside the Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City on Thursday, a front-loader scooped up the piles of damp clothing, furniture and carpeting that lined the curb and dropped them in a massive trash receptacle.
Inside the school lobby, families waited in line to get food, cleaning supplies and clothing as they began the long process of rebuilding their homes and lives. Blankets from the Red Cross never even made it into the building, they were distributed so fast.
“The power came back on, but many people still don’t have heat or hot water,” school Principal Medina Peyton said as she watched the lobby fill with school families waiting for the afternoon shift of supplies. Some came over to tell her that they, a friend, or neighbor, had lost everything.
The city’s schools are a community resource for their neighborhoods. Faculty and staff have risen to the challenge of helping their families rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. School was closed for a week after the storm, but staff still began locating and providing food and supplies. A Facebook page for Atlantic City Teachers United has brought in donations and volunteers who came to the schools this week to help.
With school back in session this week, lessons were also adapted to give students an outlet to talk about the storm and its aftereffects.
Kendall Kell, of Hammonton, a teacher in Winslow Township, brought her daughters, Kerstein, 11, and Shannon, 9, to Texas Avenue School on Thursday to help pack care packages for families. Her district remained closed for the now-canceled teacher’s convention, so she used the day to give her own children an eye-opening lesson in community service.
“It’s amazing,” she said as they packed clothing for children on their list. “You drive through the city, and you see all the carpeting and furniture piled out on the curb.”
Texas Avenue School’s Sandy Relief committee had sent home surveys in Spanish and English for families to fill out listing their needs. Volunteers pre-packed packages of clothing, and on Thursday the 180 neediest families arrived to pick up packages of cleaning supplies, toiletries, food and clothing. Another 150 families were scheduled for today.
“Donations have been pouring in,” said school technology coordinator Francie Josephsen as she assigned volunteers working in the gym packed with supplies. “But families who live on the bay to Fairmount Avenue lost everything. It’s all out on the curb.”
Blanca Perez picked through boxes of toys and grabbed a couple of coloring books and a colorful learning station for her 18-month-old grandson Steven, who played with a yellow truck, a red race car and a blue plastic pumpkin.. Her sons Carlos and Alex helped carry the supplies back to their home.
“We lost a lot,” said Alex, 22.
At the Richmond Avenue School, temporarily located in the old Brighton Avenue School building, tables lined the main hallway. Some had clothes, neatly folded and labeled by size and gender. Others had toiletries, cleaning supplies and canned goods. Since the temporary site is farther away for families, staff arranged for transportation when needed, vice principal Shelly Williams said.
School relief coordinator Janine Krizauskas said the school already maintains a Caring Cupboard of supplies, so parents know they can come to the school for help.
Outside groups including the Red Cross, Community Food Bank, Shore Fellowship Church in Egg Harbor Township and the Eastern Service Workers Association have assisted the schools, and donations have poured in from numerous corporations and businesses.
Still, on Thursday, Peyton was worried that Sovereign Avenue School was running low on food, and she hoped a planned delivery would arrive soon. Cases of water were stacked in the Parent Center, but the canned food waiting on a table looked barely sufficient for the waiting crowd. Peyton said they have identified 343 families devastated by the storm.
Clothes were stacked on tables in the cafetorium and along the wall of the gym. After lunch, students with lists searched the tables.
Jolie Lajera, 8, and Nancy Lopez, 8, turned the process into a mini-shopping trip, oohing and aahing over cute baby outfits for younger relatives. Micaela Delossantos, 9, wanted a blanket for her father, who was living closer to a job, but in an apartment with no heat.
Peyton said children are resilient, but teachers are taking the time to let students discuss their experiences.
Texas Avenue School counselor Richard Prince found some Sesame Street videos appropriate for younger children, and the kindergarteners drew pictures about what had happened to them.
“Hurricane Sandy was Scary...Our Texas Avenue Family Remains Strong” says the bulletin board of drawings by teacher Joy Kelley’s kindergarten students. The class read a story about a family that lost everything in a fire, and talked about the storm. Some of the students were frightened, but others seemed to find it an adventure.
Camila Ramirez, 5, talked about going to her uncle’s house that was very far away.
“We took some things so they would be safe,” she said.
Clemente Rodriguez, 5, watched the water splash up high over the the top of a bus and drew a bus covered in blue.
“I stayed inside my house,” she said, adding she was happy to get back to school.
Sovereign Avenue students are writing their stories, which will be compiled into a book. Visitors to the school are welcomed by a huge bulletin board decorated with a big yellow sun, red hearts and messages from older students. Peyton, who lives in Atlantic City, said she talked to the students about how they are survivors and will recover. Student messages offer encouragement and hope.
“This is a start to a new beginning,” wrote Joseph Martinez.
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