Classroom Supplies Help Bring Stability to School Hit by Superstorm

Story and photos by Laura Reinhardt

After Superstorm Sandy slammed into Far Rockaway in late October 2012, Rosemarie Eshcevarria spent days walking through the New York City community in which she grew up. The kindergarten teacher called "Mrs. E" by her students checked on parents and their children.

Teacher Rosemarie Eshcevarria received school supplies from the mobile Teacher Resource Center.

"The one thing they were very excited [to know] was, when is school going to open?" Rosemarie says. "Because it was a place for these children to stay. It was food. It was shelter. It was just a sense of stability to have them back in the school."

Stability after a disaster is often impossible for parents to provide when the lights are out, the heat is gone, or the home is demolished. But schools and teachers can offer students that sense of normalcy for at least a few hours each day.

Sandy, the hurricane turned superstorm, struck Far Rockaway, a community in the borough of Queens, especially hard. Located on a peninsula, waters from Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean rose and engulfed the town, leaving devastation and heartbreak. Residents were without power and heat for nearly three weeks.

A Need for Stability

"The slightest thing will throw a child off," says Rosemarie, who teaches at Challenge Preparatory Charter School in Far Rockaway. "Children have a hard time processing outside the norm, and then you throw the superstorm into the mix."

Challenge Prep wasn't immune to Sandy's swift punishment. Storm waters rushed into the 3-year-old school. Shrimp, fish, and snakes swam in the basement-level kindergarten classes, including Rosemarie's.

Free supplies helped art teacher Malissa Walker, left, work with students after Superstorm Sandy.

Art teacher Malissa Walker fared only slightly better, as the floodwaters inched up as high as her first-floor classroom.

She threw away 300 children's books she had accumulated during her years of teaching.

"We didn't cry," Walker says. "We were close a couple of times." As she threw away craft projects, she reminded herself that it could be worse: "We weren't the kindergarten who had to literally throw away everything."

The teachers faced a challenge. How were they going to resupply their classrooms—and while doing so, restore a sense of hope in their students?

A Community in Need Hit Hard

According to the U.S. Census, 25 percent of residents in Far Rockaway live below the poverty line, compared with 15 percent for the rest of the state. Seventy-seven percent of the students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

"To not have to ask parents for something so little as paper, pencils—to them that's the world," says Malissa. "That's an extra $20 that's putting food on their plate. That's buying diapers for their younger siblings."

Rosemarie said the supplies "gives us the opportunity to... do what these children need us to do."



Many teachers understand that struggle; they live in the community and were facing their own hardship.

The floodwaters didn't reach as high as Rosemarie's tenth-floor apartment in Far Rockaway. But to prepare for the storm, she bought $400 worth of groceries for her family. Her mother spent $300.

Without power, however, the refrigerated food was gone in three days. The family cooked and ate it, or it spoiled. Extra money went for gas to shuttle their children to bathe in an aunt's house in Brooklyn. Then they hurried back to Far Rockaway before the community was enveloped in pitch-black darkness.

Even when the power came back on, the heat in the buildings wasn't restored. Rosemarie bought space heaters to warm her family, her mother, and her mother-in-law. "To supply them with heat was $400 that we didn't expect" to spend, says Rosemarie.

Teachers normally spend hundreds of their own dollars to help with classroom supplies, but emergency expenses left Rosemarie without extra money to spend on her students.

Malissa, the art teacher, was in a similar predicament.

"Last year, I spent a couple thousand dollars [on school supplies], so I didn't have a couple of hundred extra dollars to go and spend" on emergency needs after losing power, Malissa says. "I lost all my food in my fridge. Just trying to get gas was a [trying] situation, so you know there wasn't extra money to spend."

Getting school supplies was like "Christmas" for Rosemarie, who teaches kindergarten.

Rosemarie says teachers had to stretch what they had. They drew lines on copy paper and photocopied it for students lacking lined notebook paper. They considered doing group projects so students could share resources.

Like Christmas

Just a couple of days after Challenge Prep reopened, the school learned that World Vision was bringing its mobile Teacher Resource Center (TRC) to the school. The TRC is a trailer filled with shelves of school supplies, bringing much-needed resources to educators at schools where at least 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

"They gave us these huge bags that we got to fill up," says Malissa. "We were all ecstatic! We were all smiling ear-to-ear, going out there super-excited to fill our bags with things that we really needed."

"It was Christmas," Rosemarie says. "You can't work without your tools—you don't have pencils and paper, you can't work. A construction worker can't nail if he doesn't have his hammer. So that's what the paper and pencil is for us."

World Vision Still Here

If not for the mobile Teacher Resource Center, Malissa would spend her own money on supplies.

 

The first time the mobile TRC visited the school, World Vision staff told Malissa that the organization doesn't come in for just a short time following disasters.

"You guys are still here several months later," says Malissa. "You're here for the long run. [That is] important to know."

In late February, World Vision brought shoes, toys, and games for each of the students at the school. Malissa says that for children who lost everything, the importance of a toy can't be overestimated.

"Just that extra toy that they get to bring home and play with brings a little bit more normalcy," she says.

World Vision's support for the school is important, Rosemarie says, because "it gives us the opportunity to continue to do what these children need us to do. It enables us to be good teachers. It's that extra push."

As for the donors who help World Vision provide the TRC, Malissa says: "We couldn't thank them enough. Without those supplies, we would still be struggling."

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