This is not the first time Palisades School District Superintendent Dr. Bridget O’Connell has spent a few days in a shelter. Just about this same time last year during Hurricane Irene this school district opened its doors to the community. “Last year we didn’t have the same kind of power outages but we opened the middle school for showers and hot meals,” recalled Dr. O’Connell.
The school has long been the center of this community where the district serves families in five townships covering 100 square miles. Dr. O’Connell sits alongside Donna Holmes, director of community relations and development and I in a dimly lit room off the main hallway of the building that houses those impacted by Hurricane Sandy over this last week. Their faces are wind burned and they pull small hand warmer packets out of their gloves without taking their eyes off their smart phones. “Tuesday AT&T was down, so these became paperweights,” she says with a smile, “it’s an awesome team I work with.”
As the weekend approached, it’s a juggling act. Making sure all of the evacuees are being cared for, along with volunteers from the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Palisades Youth Crew. There’s a steady stream of people passing through the room carrying boxes of food to the kitchen area. “There’s going to be stuffing and turkey and something with apples apparently,” Dr. O’Connell laments as a volunteer carts bags of apples past us. When I ask about school on Monday, she pulls what was a sheet of copy paper out of her pocket with a diagram on it, “It’s all sketched out. If power is restored ‘Plan A’ is to move the shelter to another area.”
As power continues to comeback on, many residents are coming to the school for a hot lunch, supplies like shovels, work gloves and water. But perhaps even more important is the sense of community the school is able to provide. “Just talking to people…making it personal,” she says, “things are still optimistic compared to other places (hit by Hurricane Sandy).” Donna Holmes highlights the importance of the students learning through service. “Volunteering like this promotes leadership. It gives them a real glimpse of what it takes,” she says, “student, leadership, service.”
Our time together passes quickly. As Dr. O’Connell puts her gloves back on and gathers the empty zip lock back that held her cold cut sandwich from lunch she says, “We set a very high standard last year and we’re proud of that.” That pride shows.
We walk back down the hall as Donna and she point out key players in this relief effort; school board members, the principal, families of students who are also storm victims but are volunteering. We head back out to the parking lot where cars continue to line up and get supplies. More pallets of bottled water are coming and going. It is a true community effort, neighbor helping neighbor, strangers becoming friends, kids learning to become leaders, all in the parking lot of Palisades High School, a community institution.
- By Scott Snyder
American Red Cross volunteer