Freeport students deliver the goods: Supplies get to storm-damaged NY schools
FREEPORT — Freeport High School students and staff made their first in-person delivery to the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged New York coast Monday, delivering supplies to schools damaged by last October's storm.
Organized by senior Abigail Smith, the group collected donations of notebooks, rulers, backpacks, binders and other supplies from schools and businesses, and delivered them to three schools on New York's Long Island.
"It's amazing to me to see everyone come together and help," Smith said. "Learning all these skills and organizing has been a really good experience."
The effort, called Freeport to Freeport, was originally aimed at aiding Freeport, N.Y. But it was expanded to include two other schools after the Maine students realized there was a greater need, Smith said.
They had planned to only deliver to Giblyn Elementary School in Freeport. But after learning about the destruction at two other nearby schools, they expanded their drive to include New York's Freeport High School and East Rockaway High School in Oceanside, one of the hardest-hit areas.
On Jan. 25, the group loaded up a school van and another car with supplies to prepare for the 350-mile drive to New York. In addition to the school supplies, Service Learning Coordinator Dede Bennell said they also raised enough money to buy $1,100 in gift cards, which they gave to guidance councilors at the schools to distribute to families of teachers and students in need.
Bennell said their reception at the schools Monday was warm.
"It was really fantastic and far exceeded our expectations," Bennell said, who returned home from the trip late Monday night. "They were so incredibly gracious."
The students had breakfast with New York's Freeport High School student government leaders, their principal, the superintendent of schools and some of the School Board members Monday morning, Bennell said. Afterward, they toured the building and visited different classrooms.
The students then visited Giblyn Elementary School, where fourth-grade students sang to them, made posters and read letters they had written about how Hurricane Sandy had affected their lives.
Then the Freeport, Maine, group visited East Rockaway High School, which is still closed and not expected to reopen in the near future, Bennell said. The students of that high school are attending class in a formerly vacant elementary school.
"You could feel the stress and hear the stress," Bennell said. "But, they're making the best of it."
One of the most telling signs of the lingering effects of the hurricane, Bennell said, was that she had difficulty booking hotels in the area because many of them are still filled with local residents whose homes were destroyed by the storm.
"They're in the 'rip-out' stage right now," she said, adding that some of the homes had 6 to 8 feet of water in them, with some still marked as unsafe. "They're trying to rebuild, but some people are just completely overwhelmed."
Although much of the debris has been cleaned up since the storm more than three months ago, Bennell said there was still evidence of Sandy, with burned buildings, dumpsters full of debris and boats still strewn around.
"It was just an incredibly touching trip for all of us," she said. "It felt so good to see our efforts and to meet everybody. We're all really happy to finally put a face to a name and have new friendships."
Bennell said they hope to continue the relationship.
"It was incredible," she said. "We spent a lot of time with them. We're excited about this new connection we have them."
Bennell said the level of support from the community and the students made the effort possible.
Another 466-pound shipment of supplies was delivered to the East Rockaway school earlier this month by volunteers from Freeport.
Many of the supplies were donated by students at Freeport Middle School, where Smith made presentations in late November. Other donations were from area businesses.
Although the main thrust of the effort was to help the schools replace some of their damaged supplies and help people get back on their feet, Bennell said her students have benefited from the work, too.
"I'm so impressed with these kids, especially Abigail," she said, adding that to organize the drop-offs students had to make calls to businesses, schedule pick-ups and write letters. "They've learned a lot of skills. It's been a really big learning experience for all of them."
"It's really nice to see how much our community has embraced this idea," she continued. "It feels good to be able to do something while we sit in the safety of our homes. ... Many of them down there are still in need and will be for a long time."
The storm is blamed for 140 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.