Students in the Jericho school district helped carry out a holiday tradition for one middle school in Cape Coral, Florida, devastated by Hurricane Ian in September.  Credit: Denise Nash

When Hurricane Ian ripped through the roof of their middle school in Cape Coral, Florida, vulnerable students there had their lives turned upside down. Some were left homeless. Their school was closed. They faced difficult months ahead, including the near certainty that they would have to cancel a popular annual sale of Christmas tree ornaments.

Then, unexpectedly, school staffers and students in the Jericho district on Long Island stepped forward with an imaginative offer of help.

Here's how events unfolded, according to participants on both sides. 

'The kids were devastated' 

On Sept. 29, the morning after the storm struck, a local teacher, Suzanne Tocci, returned home to Cape Coral. The ceiling of her house had collapsed and wallboard littered the floor. All around, a city of 200,000 residents had been devastated by winds of up to 150 mph. 

One immediate priority for Tocci and the other five members of her family was finding temporary shelter. Another priority was checking on the welfare of her students.

Tocci and her husband, Anthony, both taught at Caloosa Middle School, the one with the damaged roof. Their assignment was providing instruction in "life skills" for 20 students with developmental disabilities.

With the school now closed due to storm damage, students were left without classrooms, and many were homeless as well. The Toccis got in touch with them via cellphones as best they could, but any thought of continuing preparations for the holiday sale seemed out of the question. 

For many students, the sale had been a highlight of previous school years. It gave teens a chance to craft ornaments by hand while also gaining practical experience as customer greeters, gift wrappers and cashiers.

But now, there were bigger issues to address. 

"The kids were devastated by the storm, they were petrified," Suzanne Tocci recalled. "Some stopped talking, they stopped eating. Typically, at that time of year everything would have been about making crafts, getting ready for the holiday boutique. We had to put that on hold and do more mental check-ins with the kids. It was like the world stopped turning for us."

Maggie Shi makes Christmas ornaments at Jericho High School on...

Maggie Shi makes Christmas ornaments at Jericho High School on Wednesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

On LI, reminders of Sandy

On Long Island, Denise Nash was watching news of Hurricane Ian on television. Nash is director of public information in the Jericho district, and the destruction she saw on screen reminded her of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. In the aftermath of that disaster, Jericho provided help to a stricken district on Nassau County's South Shore.

"I was thinking there has to be something we can do," Nash said.

Several days later, Nash raised the subject at a meeting of Jericho's PTA leaders. Everyone agreed they should look for ways to assist struggling districts in southwest Florida. Nash began making cold calls and emailing superintendents and principals.

Many of the Florida educators responded that they were getting all the immediate help they needed from the Red Cross and other recovery organizations. But one principal, Ann Cole, messaged back to say that she knew a special-education teacher who, despite displacement from her own home, was seeking support for her students. 

"Please know how much your thoughtfulness means!" Cole told Nash.

Cole was principal of Caloosa Middle School, and the teacher she referred to was Suzanne Tocci. Nash got in touch with Tocci immediately, and they worked out a plan: Volunteers in Jericho would make the Christmas ornaments, then ship them to Cape Coral, so students there could hold their sale after all. 

LI students step up

In the weeks that followed, more than 150 students at Jericho Senior High School, Jericho Middle School and George Jackson Elementary School took time to make ornaments. Among the volunteers were seven students with disabilities enrolled in the high school's Career and Skills Development program, similar to the "life skills" classes in Cape Coral.

Teacher aide Gina Alvarenga and student Dina Frank work on gingerbread...

Teacher aide Gina Alvarenga and student Dina Frank work on gingerbread ornaments. Credit: Jericho High School/Denise Nash

Work went fast. During one afternoon workshop at the high school, five students turned out 30 ornaments in 40 minutes. Production included pine cones decorated with ribbons and pom-poms, wooden discs covered with vinyl images of Santa Claus, and transparent globes colored from the inside with red and green paints. 

"Did you see what happened when I shook it?" said one excited student, Dina Frank, 18, who had just finished a paint job. 

By the fourth week in November, Jericho had shipped seven large boxes of ornaments to Caloosa Middle School. In addition, Jericho PTAs collected nearly $5,000 in donations to be distributed in the form of gift cards among needy families in Cape Coral.

Brittany Del Vecchio, the teacher in charge of the Career and Skills Development at Jericho High School, said the Florida project went beyond showing students how to be creative.

"Any opportunity to help someone else teaches a valuable lesson," Del Vecchio said.               

Looking ahead

Back in Cape Coral, students completed their holiday sale of ornaments and other household items on Wednesday. Organizers said about $1,000 had been raised, and that most proceeds would be used for a year-end barbecue picnic for students and their families. 

Meanwhile, the Tocci family is renting a house and hoping to return to their own home next year, once repairs are completed. There are hopes of setting up pen-pal communications between Caloosa students and their Jericho counterparts. 

Suzanne Tocci said this year's sale, in some ways, turned out to be the most successful so far. 

"We had people coming in until the very last minute," she said. "So we ended on a high note."

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