Class of 2012: Wading upstream
While most teens were gathering school supplies and savoring the last days of the summer of 2011, Katie Farineau was helping to renovate her family's old farmhouse, which was inundated by floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene.
Although the natural disaster was devastating to her family and her community, she was able to find a silver lining in the crisis and channel her energy to better her community.
Farineau, a 2012 graduate of Schoharie High School, detailed how the flood called her and other community members to action in an essay entitled "Go With the Flow," which recently won her first place in the second annual Big Mind Learning Scholarship Essay Contest.
Farineau wrote about the worst day of her life. It wasn't the day her family was told to evacuate their farmhouse in the village of Schoharie, but two days later, as she waited for "the water to relinquish the softball fields and sleepy drugstores" of her childhood.
A self-proclaimed "doer," Farineau was anxious to be allowed back in the village to help her family and her community recover from the flood.
"I wasn't irate at the flood, a fluke disaster; I was disconcerted that I couldn't do anything to make my village right again, to re-lay each ruined brick foundation, or to scrape the mud off every bedroom floor," she said in her essay.
Once the floodwaters receded, Farineau rolled up her sleeves and helped to put her hometown on the road to recovery.
When school started, she was there to do the same. Although the high school was spared from the floodwaters, 65 families with children who attended the school weren't so lucky, said Principal Stacey DeLaney.
"It was a very tumultuous time, coming back after the flood, and we have a continuum of activities that we do for seniors, and we just didn't know if we were going to be able to do some of them," she said. "Katie just stepped into that leadership role and said, 'Yes, we can do this, Mrs. DeLaney. Here's how I can help.' "
Farineau, the school's varsity soccer team captain and class president, received the 2012 Schoharie High School Principal's Award and a variety of other accolades. She was also named class co-salutatorian, sharing the title with Skyler VanDerwerken.
Coming back to school after the flood brought her class closer, Farineau said.
"Our senior class really came together in the volunteer effort after the hurricane. We spent a lot of time together," she said. "Going into the year, we had a mentality that was much closer than we had ever had in the past, which was great."
Farineau will attend Harvard University in the fall. She's not yet sure what her major will be, but said the experience with the flood has spurred her to pursue a career that will involve helping others.
"I've always been community-minded, as far as volunteering in the community, but I think [the flood] really helped me value my community even more and helped me want to give back to others," she said.
Richard Ball, owner of Schoharie Valley Farms and the Carrot Barn farm market, watched Farineau grow up and has been her employer since she was 14. Over the years, she has worked in the farm's fields, greenhouses and market.
"She's a great worker and gets along with everybody and pitches in," Ball said. He said she has unlimited potential.
"I tell all the kids that come to work here, you spend a few years on the farm learning how to stay at it when it's hot and you're thirsty and maybe you're hungry or maybe it's raining a little bit or whatever, and you learn how to work and just be responsible, show up every day and do what's expected of you, and lean into the oars like everybody else does to get the job done, and you can go anyplace and do anything you want to do."
Growing up in Schoharie also helped to shape her strong work ethic, Farineau said.
"It's always been important to me to work hard in my community because that's part of the set of ethics I think that comes along with a small farming community, hard work and taking pride in that hard work, and that's something that I will carry with me to a bigger place, such as Cambridge [for] college, and beyond," she said.