By Brian Park
It’s been nearly three months since Hurricane Sandy touched down in the Mid-Atlantic, ravaging entire neighborhoods and upturning people’s lives in its wake.
Although some communities along the eastern seaboard have gradually moved toward a state of normalcy, in some of the hardest hit places, like New York and New Jersey, recovery efforts remain bogged down by infrastructure that’s been spread too thin and the sheer magnitude of the initial destruction.
Volunteer and charitable efforts are invaluable during times of national crisis such as Sandy—a point proven recently by the St. Margaret’s Episcopal School community.
Within days after Hurricane Sandy struck U.S. soil, St. Margaret’s teachers, staff and students formed a committee to coordinate relief efforts from San Juan Capistrano.
“As a school, we have a philosophy that we like to respond immediately in times of disaster,” Lora Allison, the school’s director of community life, said. “Out of an upper school of 430 students, there were over 40 who came to those committee meetings.”
Quick response to national disasters isn’t new to the St. Margaret’s community. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the school rented a truck, filled it with collected supplies and sent it to New Orleans. In 2010, after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, the school raised more than $20,000 in relief aid.
“It’s sort of become a school tradition in a way, in the case of natural disasters, for our kids to take it upon themselves to lend a hand,” Headmaster Marcus Hurlbut said. “We, as a school, have a consummate responsibility to teach: those who have much given to them have a responsibility to give back.”
In the weeks following Hurricane Sandy, students, with the aid of faculty and parents, organized an effort dubbed “Sock it to Sandy.” Students at each level organized their own events, in addition to several school-wide events.
At the lower school level, students held a sock-hop dance, with $5 admission, for all students and their families to attend. Middle school students made no-sew fleece blankets to donate to Hurricane victims, and upper school students held a bake sale and organized fundraising activities during the lower school dance. The school also began collection drives and sold items like pencils and T-shirts to raise additional funds.
The school was able to raise $10,000 in just three weeks. That money went to Episcopal Relief and Development, an international nonprofit whose mission is aligned with the school’s beliefs, according to Allison.
The school wanted to do more than raise money, however. As fundraising efforts progressed, several students, parents and faculty expressed interest in travelling to the East Coast to provide on-the-ground aid.
“Our mission was always two-fold,” Allison said. “One was to create an extensive fundraising effort that would be helpful, and second, we, for the first time in our school’s history, felt like we wanted to respond on the ground and send a delegation of students to put into the context of learning why we’re raising money.”
Eleven upper school students were signed up, with their parents’ consent: seniors Gianni Carson, Mattingly Messina, Hunter Matthews, Maddi Larsen and Savanna Riley; juniors Lauren Golledge and Leah Dy; sophomores Morgan Higgins, Mackenzie Greiner and Brittany Nielson; and freshman Jason Chin.
They were accompanied by five adult chaperones: Hurlbut, Allison, retired associate headmaster David Boyle and two parents: Stephanie Riley and Marina Goffredo, Savanna’s and Gianna’s mothers, respectively.
The trip was initially planned to begin in early December, but pending exams and the lack of a connection to relief efforts postponed travel. Later in the month, Allison was finally able to get in contact with Operation Blessing, another international nonprofit, who set the group up to work in Breezy Point, Queens and Sea Bright, New Jersey.
The group flew into JFK on Thursday, January 3, during the last few weeks of the students’ winter break. Goffredo, a New York native, coordinated meals and accommodations on the ground, and the next morning, the group drove from Brooklyn to Breezy Point.
“We didn’t see a lot of damage from the airport, but once we crossed the bridge onto where Breezy Point was located, it was nothing like I’ve ever seen before,” Carson said. “I’ve never seen destruction like that.”
“It was a very sudden sort of emotion. We were laughing in the car, we were taking silly photos, but then we hit Breezy Point and everyone was quiet,” Savanna Riley said. “I felt like I was standing in a ghost town. This was once a community, but you thought, ‘Where are the people? Where’s the life?’”
The group immediately began work on a home in need of a complete renovation. Burt and Jeanne Metz’ home was in the process of expansion several months before the storm, but the untimely death of their contractor left them with an incomplete house. When the hurricane hit Breezy Point, the 80-year-old couple’s home of 30 years was engulfed by water and the receding tide left only debris and layers of sand.
“It still had a foundation, but it needed a new roof, studs had to be replaced, new sheet rock installed,” Hurlbut said.
With the help of other Operation Blessing volunteers, the group worked for three days on the Metz’ home in Breezy Point. On Sunday, they travelled to Sea Bright, which posed a far different challenge.
“Because they have an ocean on one side and a river on another, there was a lot more damage,” Carson said.
Those in the group who were under 18 helped remove debris from a home, while the others, because there was considerable mold and sheet rock involved, helped demo another.
“Compared to Breezy Point, Sea Bright was pretty much decimated,” Hurlbut said. “We ate at a restaurant that somehow managed to survive the storm, but the owner said he wasn’t going to survive.”
Within a span of three days in Breezy Point, however, the team from St. Margaret’s helped build what was practically a brand new home for the Metz’s, who had been told their home was just going to be cleared of debris.
“We weren’t just tearing something down but building something back up again,” Hurlbut said.
“It was very uplifting. Everyone was excited to be helping,” Savanna Riley said. “In fact, we didn’t want to leave.”
Due to an early flight, the group was unable to attend Operation Blessing’s surprise reveal of the Metz’s home—an event that was covered by New York media and was featured on “NBC Nightly News” and CNN. Although students say they would have liked to have seen the surprise, all expressed their content, knowing they helped restore the couple’s home.
“Our kids knew they were going to miss the turnover, but the thing that really struck me was they were completely fine with it,” Allison said. “They said, ‘You know, we’ll be the Metz’s Secret Santa and they’ll never know it.’”
“We were there in spirit. They knew we were there and we helped,” Nielsen said. “It was a good experience for us to be there in the first place, and that’s all we can ask for.”