Escondido students help classrooms destroyed by Hurricane Harvey

After teachers at Juniper Elementary put out the call for donations to help with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, supplies began trickling into their Escondido classrooms.

By the second week, they were flooded with donations. Kids and their families delivered binders, folders, notebooks, composition books, crayons, scissors, glue sticks and even socks and clothing. And a teacher’s husband, a pilot for Delta Air Lines, arranged to ship the assortment of supplies to Houston.

“We put the word out to our families and students, and made some phone calls to the parents, and to our surprise, we had a huge outpouring of support from all of our families,” Juniper Principal Jason Wrezski said. “It was way more than we expected.”

The school goods were earmarked for a second-grade classroom at Cloverleaf Elementary and five first-grade classrooms at Sue Creech Elementary in Houston. The latter was so inundated that it closed for the year, and students were relocated to classes at a nearby University of Houston campus.

After learning of their plight, some students pulled supplies from their own backpacks, said Suzanne Catalanotto, a fifth-grade teacher and Associated Student Body advisor at Juniper, who helped coordinate the relief effort.

“I had kids coming up to me, saying, ‘I have an extra notebook. Could you give this, too?’” she said. “It just was amazing to me that the individual kids - kids I didn’t even know at the school - handed me things they had half-used, and things they just wanted to give.”

As donations piled up in her room, students sorted and packed the supplies. Then they looked into shipping and realized they had a hurdle to overcome. The Fed-Ex estimate for 15 large boxes weighing 15 to 20 pounds each was $1,000, beyond the means of the school, Catalanotto said.

About 85 percent of students at the school come from low-income homes, according to the California Department of Education, and families had already extended their resources to purchase donations.

“We’re not an affluent school,” she said. “We’re in a medium- to low-income area. For them to be able to give as much as they gave, it’s kind of incredible.”

A teacher offered to enlist her husband to help. As a pilot for Delta Air Lines, he could get a 50 percent discount on shipping, bringing the tab down to $500.

Despite donations for that cost, the school still fell short. So he took another tack, and arranged with shipping supervisors at the airline to send the boxes via cargo, at a 90 percent discount. The pilot personally delivered the supplies to LAX, where the airline shipped them out, and eventually waived the fee entirely. Delta officials who coordinated the shipment could not be reached for comment.

That took a weight off the minds of students and teachers who were eager to get the donations off to Houston, she said.

“I think they were excited when we brought them up to the front of the school,” she said. “I think they were a little relieved to get them out of the school and they were happy to get them to the kids in Houston. I want them to know the great things we’ve done for these other kids.”

The experience helped the students comprehend the scope of the disaster, Catalanotto said. The Houston teachers they worked with could not be reached for comment, but photos of the Creech campus show it swamped by several feet of water.

“I think it really hit home when we got the address for the Creech Elementary School,” she said. “The teacher that we were in contact with said don’t send the stuff to the school. You’ll have to send it to my house because the school is no longer there. The kids were like, what? We talked about what it would feel like to not have pencils and paper.”

Most students at Juniper are too young to remember the recent San Diego wildfires, but their teachers know that they may eventually confront damage from fires or earthquakes in their own community, Catalanotto said. Contributing to students hit by the hurricane helped them see the natural disaster through the perspective of other kids their age, Wrezski said.

“I think it made them very aware of the severity of it, even though it was a long distance away,” he said.

It also reinforced the message of community service, he said.

“It was a community in need, and they felt very proud of the amount of materials they were able to collect,” he said.

deborah.brennan@sduniontribune.com Twitter@deborahsbrennan

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