East Rockaway students displaced by Sandy aid Okla. tornado victims

Young people play in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament Young people play in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at East Rockaway High School. (Jun.15, 2013) Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

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The morning after a monstrous tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., flattening the town and killing 24 people, a group of East Rockaway High School students found themselves uniquely qualified to relate to the disaster.

They sat in their social studies classroom and talked about how difficult it would be for all those suddenly homeless families to put their lives back together.

They spoke from experience.

Many East Rockaway High students still aren't back in their homes nearly eight months after superstorm Sandy swept 5 feet of floodwater into the South Shore village.

The school, also heavily damaged by the storm, was shuttered for half a year. The building finally reopened, after $10 million in repairs, on April 29.

That's why Moore resonated so deeply.

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"With all the help we got after Sandy, the kids were devastated" by the Oklahoma disaster, said Don Poland, an East Rockaway social studies teacher. "People have helped us from all around the country. We were the poster child for Sandy."

So Poland and his students -- armed with a mission to "pay it forward" -- started to plan.

Bake sales were held. So was a movie night, car wash, recycling drive and 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Since the tornado struck on May 20, students and faculty have raised about $9,000.

"This is the lesson you teach," Poland said. "It's great that they know about the Civil War, but this is the real lesson -- to help others and make the world a better place."

The basketball tournament, held Saturday in the high school's new gym, raised about $700 for Moore relief. Thirty teams participated, with players ranging from elementary kids to community members.

One of the volunteers for the fund drive is a 13-year-old girl who has her own emotional scars etched by a natural disaster.

Jessica Gonzalez said she was forced out of her flood-damaged home and had to transfer to a different school district for the year after Sandy. Back home since February, she plans to attend East Rockaway High in the fall.

"I know how I felt when I left East Rockaway," she said. "I really missed everybody, and I wasn't able to see anybody for a long time."

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Poland said the fundraising goal is $10,000. With that money, he intends to buy $100 gift cards to Home Depot or Walmart and distribute them to those in need when he drives to Oklahoma with a minivan full of supplies next month.

In the meantime, Gonzalez and her friend, Demi Lonergan, 14, have some advice for the people of Moore.

"It's tough, but you're going to get a lot of help," Lonergan said.

"And don't ever give up," Gonzalez chimed in, "because at some point it will get better."

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