Students make a difference with hurricane relief efforts

MIDDLEBURY/VERGENNES — Hurricane Harvey lashed through Texas just as local schools were gearing up for the first day of class. Within the second week of school, Irma was heading for the Florida keys. In response, students and staff have been taking action.
“We want them to know we have their backs,” said Middlebury Union High School driver’s education teacher George Rooney. “I expressed that to the students when I did a PA announcement last Friday, and I said, ‘This isn’t a competition between advisories or classes. This is their life, and they have nothing.’ We want them to know they can count on us.”
Soon after Harvey made landfall, Rooney called a friend in Houston to see if she needed help. Rooney’s friend said that she herself was OK, but would he be interested in reaching out to a neighbor who’s a guidance counselor at a nearby elementary school?
Rooney got in touch with Kara Peck, a guidance counselor at North Belt Elementary School in Humble, Texas, a school on the northeast side of Houston. Even without hurricanes, Rooney learned that 90 percent of the 750 students at the school qualify for free and reduced lunch —a quick gauge that most live at or near poverty.
Peck gave Rooney a list with specific needs for 13 children. The list includes school supplies, backpacks, shirts, dresses, socks and underwear.
A co-adviser for MUHS’s chapter of the National Honor Society, Rooney contacted the organization’s student officers in the days before school started.
“They were all for it,” said Rooney. “The officers were like ‘Yeah, absolutely’ and they spread the word.”
Rooney emailed Peck’s list of needs to all MUHS parents and encouraged them to bring donations to last week’s open house. The National Honor Society organized that intake effort and is staffing a donation box during lunch hours.
Students at the National Honor Society are also taking monetary donations to send to North Belt Elementary in the form of Visa gift cards. Next steps are boxing up the items for each child and shipping them. Rooney said he isn’t yet sure when the hurricane relief drive will end or what other actions the students might take.
“We’ve never done anything like this,” Rooney said. “We don’t have an end date.”
For MUHS senior and National Honor Society officer Justin Holmes, the hurricane relief effort is a way to reach out to “Southern counterparts.”
“Here in Middlebury, we consider ourselves to be very lucky to receive such a fantastic education, and we want to ensure that those affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma have the same opportunity,” Holmes said in an email to the Independent.
At Vergennes Union High School, students and staff began asking how best to respond to the hurricanes on the first day of classes — an opportunity that VUHS educator Lee Shorey embraced as a teaching moment.
Learning you can make a difference, said Shorey, “ties (students) to something bigger than themselves.”
Shorey teaches a class for seventh graders called Impact, which introduces students to the educational system they’ll be a part of for the next six years and helps them understand how to access resources and how to contribute. Those students learned that along with sending financial aid, two critical items needed were diapers and formula — so that drive was launched. Shorey said that VUHS is looking for an area relief effort going to Texas or Florida that would be willing to deliver the donations.
VUHS students have also committed to raising $1,000 for hurricane relief as part of its annual observance of Peace One Day on Sept. 21. Students have been baking “peace” pies to sell by the slice or whole, and will also be selling donated “peace mugs” from Ben & Jerry’s.
“Everybody’s chipping in,” said Shorey of the school’s pie-making effort.
Like MUHS’s efforts, because of the scope of the hurricanes’ destruction, Shorey has not determined when the school’s relief effort will end.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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