On August 28, 2011 Hurricane Irene stalled over New York state, dumping nearly 15 inches of rain in just a few hours on the Schoharie County region of the Catskill Mountains. The Schoharie Creek quickly surged and flood waters reached a staggering seven feet in some areas. Emergency evacuation plans were implemented and some families had less than 15 minutes to escape the rising water. Homes and businesses were devastated; portions of roads and bridges were washed away.
Altmar Elementary School Principal Dee Penoyer witnessed the destruction firsthand when just days after the rain subsided she traveled to her hometown of Gilboa, New York to check on her parents and help with cleanup efforts. During her visit she learned about the impact of Hurricane Irene on her alma-mater, the Gilboa-Conesville School District. A small rural school district similar to the Altmar-Parish-Williamstown School District (APW), some Gilboa-Conesville students and their families were rescued by a helicopter from their rooftops. When many Gilboa-Conesville families were finally able to return home they found that they lost their land, their home, and anything and everything that was inside or around their property. Some families stayed with friends or relatives while others were forced to live in the second story of their two-story home while demolition, cleanup and rebuilding efforts began.
Penoyer knew that there was something that she could do to support the flood victims and enlisted students from the APW Rebel Club afterschool program at both Altmar Elementary School (AES) and Parish Elementary School (PES) to join a community outreach effort that would bring warmth to Gilboa-Conesville. With winter weather quickly approaching, Penoyer decided to have Rebel Club students make homemade winter scarves for the nearly 200 Gilboa-Conesville students in universal pre-kindergarten through grade six.
The community outreach program kicked off in mid-November with Penoyer giving a presentation at each elementary school’s Rebel Club program about the flood. She talked about the nearly 15 inches of rain that was dropped on the area and how, because of run-off, this caused seven feet of flood water to sweep through many of the towns and villages.
She talked about her own parents who were threatened by flood waters, but were never forced to evacuate their home. At high peak she said that the flood water was just steps from her parents’ front door and that they “thankfully” only suffered water damage to the basement level of their home. Much of their residual flood damage was to their farm land which was covered in several inches of mud, rocks and debris.
AES and PES students in third and fourth grade spent the next several days in their respective Rebel Club programs cutting fleece material to size and trimming the edges to make the scarves. One student involved into project compared the fashion designer experience to that of the famed television show Project Runway and all students involved in the project were filled with excitement and overjoyed to participate in a project that would connect them with kids their own age and give to a community in a time of need. Many of the APW students when asked about their involvement in the outreach project spoke with empathy about the flood victims and said that they were shocked to learn that water could cause so much damage.
In addition to crafting the scarves, the students were asked to write personalized letters to the students at Gilboa-Conesville. Unbeknownst to the students, Rebel Club Director Ashley Ackerman along with Rebel Club Site Directors Rebecca Stevens (AES) and Kara Perkins (PES) selected five letters and students Blaise Potts, Jordyn Wood, Tori Ware, Alicya Smith, and Justin Bartle were invited to act as APW ambassadors to join the three Rebel Club directors and Principal Penoyer on a field trip to personally deliver the scarves to Gilboa-Conesville.
The near 300-mile journey took place on December 13 and gave the student ambassadors an opportunity to see firsthand some of the destruction and damage that still exists nearly three months later. From a living room sofa that sets in the middle of a creek to a pillow that is stuck on a tree limb over ten feet off the ground and a baseball dugout that remains tipped over a near quarter of a mile away from the baseball diamond where it belongs to two-story homes that are missing entire first floors, the sights made the five students’ involvement in the project that much more relevant.
Gilboa-Conesville Superintendent of Schools Ruth Reeve welcomed the APW ambassadors with open arms and expressed her sincere appreciation on behalf of the district for the donation of scarves and the letters. APW students were given a tour of the school and were invited to share with the elementary-level classes the purpose of their visit to the school. Superintendent Reeve invited the APW students for lunch and spent some time speaking about the flood and answering the students’ questions. She talked about how the school building was used as an emergency shelter during the flood and how she spent the day after the flood trying to locate and personally speak with each family in the school district.
The trip back to APW gave the students an opportunity reflect upon the experience and each ambassador was asked to write about their experience and the opportunity to participate in a community outreach project with Gilboa-Conesville. In the spirit of the giving season, each included something about how good it felt to give to others, including Blaise Potts who summed up the experience with the following words: “Going to the Catskill Mountains made me feel good because I got to help people. I went to the Gilboa School so I could give the kids scarves that are suffering through hard times.”