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Amityville school turns staff day into Sandy outreach effort
At the start of the school year, Edmund W. Miles Middle School Principal Michele Darby shared with her faculty a story that became their mantra.
It was centered on an African village, where the people walked around greeting each other not with ‘hellos’ and ‘how are yous?’ but by asking, “How are the children?”
“And they answered, ‘The children are well,’” she said. “And that was the barometer for the community.”
So after superstorm Sandy uprooted the lives of so many in Amityville, Darby wondered about the emotional and physical well-being of the children.
School was set to reopen for the first time after the storm on Election Day -- Nov. 6 -- for a staff development day. The students would resume class the following day. But having been in communication with her staff through text message chains throughout the week before, Darby was worried that maybe it was too soon.
“I thought bringing everyone in for business as usual might not be what everyone needs right now,” she said.
What the community needed as a whole, she thought, were vital resources to get through the next few days and a little bit of humanity. She asked her superintendent, Dr. John Williams, whether she could turn their staff development day into a day of community outreach. She offered to mobilize her staff to collect supplies and set up a donation center in the middle school on Election Day.
“He said, ‘Can you do this?’” Darby recalled. “I said, ‘If you tell us yes, we’ll do it.’”
He told them yes. Within 24 hours, Darby, her staff and parent volunteers had turned the middle school into a one-stop shop for families in need. There were nonperishable food items, clothing for all genders and ages, shoes, toiletries, stations for charging devices, a hot breakfast and coffee, computers for checking email and even a couple of showers in the school open to the public.
Kelly Ann Wilson, a seventh grade English teacher, said she got to the school at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday to help and there were already teachers setting up.
“Our teachers went above and beyond,” she said. “Some of them were going through exactly what these families were going through and they were still there. You get to see a whole different dynamic of people at a time like this.”
Ted Tsirigotis, assistant principal at the middle school, said they served at least 200 families throughout the day, though at one point in the morning traffic slowed and they were worried that a lot of the community did not know what they were doing.
At that point, groups of teachers dispatched themselves into the community with bullhorns letting people know what was happening. They also walked down gas lines giving out flyers.
“Then they came right back to work,” he said. “It really brought everyone together.”
Darby said she knew the need would be great across the community. In the southern, waterfront areas of Amityville, homes were lost and possessions destroyed. In the northern part of the community, homes were undamaged though many were without power. But more importantly, she said many families would be in financial trouble if they could not go to work.
“Sixty to 65 percent of our school population receives free or reduced lunch,” said Darby, who is in her second year as principal and was assistant principal before that. “For a lot of people in this community, one paycheck is the difference between eating and not eating.”
Theodora Eirebamen, of Amityville, whose children, ages 10 and 15, attend other schools in the Amityville district, showed up on Nov. 6 to help out, despite the fact that a tree had crashed into her house and through her bedroom during the storm.
She said the effort was incredible and the experience moving. She said many people attended just to talk.
“There were times when you couldn’t do anything but give someone a hug,” she said. “They didn’t need anything, they just needed someone to listen.”
Darby said not only were they able to help the community, but the outreach day started the healing process for many of her faculty members who were affected.
“By helping ourselves we help others,” Darby said, borrowing a theory from the Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand. “On Wednesday, we could dedicate 100 percent of ourselves, our energy and our time to our kids.”
It worked, she said. From the first day of school to the present, Darby said her school atmosphere remains positive, upbeat and forward-thinking despite the fact that many are still displaced.
“We teach the kids about culture and community,” she said. “This day was a big day for our school community.”
Photo: A group of teachers and staff at Edmund W. Miles Middle School in Amityville gathered supplies for a donation drive to help residents affected by superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 6, 2012)