BENNINGTON -- For many in Southern Vermont, including the students of Mount Anthony Union Middle School, images of the destruction Hurricane Sandy caused in New York City evoked memories of the toll Tropical Storm Irene had on this area just a year earlier.
Sandy's path left some families homeless, stranded, and without power or any way to reach loved ones for days. The damage from Sandy was in many ways greater than that of Irene, although images of people wading through waist-deep water inside their homes, rescue crews transporting people by fishing boats, and wreckage and debris of what were once houses were all too familiar to this region.
With the local effects of Irene largely in the past, Mount Anthony students looked for a way to help those now going through their own recovery in the aftermath of Sandy. A longtime friendship between Mary Nevin, a special education facilitator at the middle school, and Deanne Fish, principal of P.S. 277, an elementary school in the peninsula community of Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., gave local students that opportunity to help in a school-to-school way.
A week after Sandy hit, Nevin was able to reach Fish and learned about hardships families in that area were going through. More than one family had to swim from their house to escape rapidly rising water levels. One mother reported that when the water surged into their home, both she and her husband had a child clinging to their back and her husband was hanging on the dog's collar. The family later had to put the dog down because it had swallowed toxic water as they were escaping from their house.
Another parent told Fish his family was sleeping when the flood waters overtook their house and his daughter escaped with only her pajamas. When they were able to return to their house, there was nothing left to salvage. His daughter wanted to return to school but had no shoes to wear.
After hearing stories about families in Gerritsen Beach and then sharing them with the Mount Anthony faculty and students, every middle school team decided to "adopt" a grade at the pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school with a little more than 450 students. Similar to Mount Anthony, more than half of the children at P.S. 277 qualify for free or reduced lunch.
After selecting a grade, each middle school team came up with gift ideas they would like to give children such as books about Vermont, toys, stuffed animals, and board games.
"We heard Hurricane Sandy ruined kids' toys so we're helping them out sending them toys and stuff," seventh-grader Carie Burdick said Wednesday, standing in Nevin's room where tables were covered with boxes of packed toys. Burdick said in one of the boxes Nevin will deliver to the school later this week are some of her own stuffed animals she is giving to children in kindergarten.
Mia Prouty's team bought notepads and pencils for children.
"We thought that since everything was devastated and they had no writing utensils or much paper to write on anymore, they each got their own notebooks and they were decorated for a boy, specifically, with smiley faces, or for a girl with butterflies," Prouty said, holding up a notepad covered with stickers. "It actually feels real good because you know the tragedy and horrors that a hurricane can bring so you feel really good that you can give back ... and put a smile on their faces with just one small thing. They know they're being thought of and cared for."
Seventh-grader Chrystal Cox said the hope is the supplies bring some happiness to the students who receive them and help them get back to their normal lives a little bit faster.
In addition to the gifts, every MAUMS student has written a letter that will be given to the children at Gerritsen Beach. "We told them about the storm we had, Irene, and how people helped us and we wanted to do the same," eighth-grader Eunice Suberu explained.
As students looked over all of the supplies that the school has brought together, sixth-grader Chris Mayer said he can imagine the joy the children will get from receiving them. Mayer, who in addition to living through Irene used to live in Florida where he experienced other natural disasters, said he is really proud of what he and his classmates have done to help others.
"I think they'll be happy that they're being thought of and to know that we feel their pain because of Irene and what Irene did. I personally do know how it feels," Mayer said.
The school-wide project, Nevin believes, illustrates the compassion students at Mount Anthony have for others.
"The cards were extremely touching. They all spoke of things getting better tomorrow and hope, and talked about how they were thinking about the students down there and they wanted the students to know that they have friends here," she said.
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