Louisiana schools thankful for Williston gifts

A year later, Hurricane Rita still felt

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Gulf Coast was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina when Rita, the most intense hurricane on record for the Gulf of Mexico, hit last year on Sept. 24. Less than two months later, 2,900 pounds of supplies from Williston residents were headed to Abbeville, La., as the culmination of the Vermont to Louisiana School-to-School Helping project.

“Everything was used,” Jennifer McRee, a fourth grade teacher in Abbeville, said. “What we didn’t hand out at schools to families or teachers, we gave to a service center.”

McRee, a friend of Williston resident Nancy Kahn, had told Kahn last fall that her school and others nearby could use assistance when she learned that Alison Kahn, then 10, was looking for a way to help people affected by the hurricanes. McRee’s school, James A. Herrod Elementary in Abbeville, had taken in between 250 and 300 students from nearby Henry Elementary School due to extensive damage there.

“Almost everybody had a family member or a friend who had lost a house,” McRee said. “At one time in my household, I had three families, from September until January. We were like 10 people in a house. And that’s how the majority of the houses were all around here.”

Alison and her mother organized the supplies project with teachers in Allen Brook Elementary School’s Vista classroom team. Students were encouraged to bring in games, toys, clothes and school supplies from the greater Williston community to send to Louisiana. Land Air Express of New England donated a driver and freight truck to take the goods free of charge.

“The kids unloaded the boxes,” McRee said of the elementary school students sharing a school. “They were just very touched by how much people were willing to help others. … It really helped with spirit, you know. At one point people were really down; just knowing that people were out there supporting them helped them push through it.”

McRee said the games and the books were the fastest to be picked up by teachers who had lost most or all of their teaching materials; though federal funding existed to re-order school supplies, it was not made available until the end of the school year. McRee said also it was a relief when teachers could hand out coats to kids who no longer had one.

Each item meant a lot to the recipient, McRee said.

“Those kids who got those games lost everything – their bed, their pillow, their toy – everything,” McRee said. “So to be able to get one toy that they could play with was like Christmas to them. They were so excited for that one little thing.”

McRee said even now many people still are living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or in extended stay hotels, while trying to rebuild their houses. Builders and those with carpenter skills, however, are in short supply. Henry Elementary School never re-opened; those area schools that did could not re-open until March of this year.

The outpouring of community support from such faraway places as Williston touched McRee, too, she said.

“Knowing what people did for us made me and others around here want to help others more,” she said. “When people call and ask for donations, I’m ready to give now, because I know how much we needed it at that time.