On occasions my blog virtually writes itself. This is one of those times. This note from Lisa Hannah, the assistant principal of a school in Belmar, NJ, came to us a few days ago. My colleagues John Tulenko and David Wald went to Belmar, a town that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, immediately following the super storm and produced a memorable piece about how the school and its staff responded. The segment ran on the NewsHour and recently David asked Ms. Hannah to describe the reaction to the piece. I share what she wrote because it’s an eloquent statement about the significance of public education, the commitment of educators, the power of television, the value of Learning Matters, the skill of my colleagues, and the generosity of the American people.
In the wake of one of the most devastating natural disasters the small shore town of Belmar, New Jersey had suffered in decades, school administrators knew that the school community of 577 students would suffer tremendous challenges in recovering and restoring a sense of normalcy and order in school. The population of students included more than 50% from economically disadvantaged homes, many of whom hailed from non-native English speaking backgrounds. These families were financially fragile even prior to the storm, and the wrath wrought by Superstorm Sandy shifted the imbalance into even more dire circumstances for many families.
When approached by Learning Matters producers David Wald and John Tulenko about following school administrators during the early days after the storm in coordinating relief efforts for our families, we had no idea what to expect. The resulting piece, which featured the plight of our district in identifying and meeting the needs of our families without the the aid of electricity or phone communication, produced a powerful response from around the country.
Immediately following the airing of the segment on November 12th, we were inundated with phone calls, emails, and donations of school supplies, clothing, and financial gifts from other school districts, community members, businesses, and private citizens. These donations were immediately channeled to students, families, and staff members most in need, including 43 displaced students and several staff members unable to return to their destroyed homes.
Some of the most poignant outreach efforts included a school district from Olney, Maryland who traveled in caravan up to Belmar one cold Saturday afternoon with hundreds of new toys for the holidays, school supplies for students and teachers, and gift bags for school leaders who were working continually to meet the needs of the students. As the NewsHour piece gained momentum in social networking circles and the Internet, thousands of dollars in gift cards and donations arrived each day offering continual relief and support to families as they tried to provide a semblance of the holiday season for their families. Young students from other schools around the country traveled to the school to personally present checks resulting from the hard work of lemonade stands and other industrious efforts designed to raise funds for the students of our school.
The stories go on and on and on…..folks stopping by saying they had seen the segment and wished to anonymously drop off hundreds of warm blankets, book bags, or other helpful donations, warm words of encouragement received via email, phone messages and in the mail.
As a result of the response from the News Hour, we were invited to share our story with the local and national media, as well as to testify before the State Assembly Education Committee to describe the impact of the storm upon our district and in our community. And each time, the same thing would be heard…”We saw that incredible piece on PBS NewsHour and we were so moved….”
As we look toward the upcoming months of this challenging school year, we look forward to a very special day that will be a direct result of the generous donations to our school, much of which was in response to viewers seeing the segment…. a day of healing called “Belmar Strong” beach celebration. On this special day in May 2013, our students will walk in numbers the few blocks to the beach wearing Belmar Strong t-shirts to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with food and music that will mark the official opening of one of the most treasured and memorable landmarks in our town, the beach! The Mayor and Council will join us in welcoming not only the students of Belmar, but the many students and staff members of other schools who stood by us during this difficult time and provided hope, inspiration, and a bit of comfort and fellowship.
Thank you again for the beautiful piece you produced for our district and the dignified manner in which you portrayed our families and their plight. We have all benefited from the outpouring of generosity, compassion, and unity so many others have shown as a result of watching.
Assistant Principal/Director of Curriculum
Belmar School District
(David and John will be going back to Belmar in May. You can expect to see their followup story shortly thereafter.)