Schoharie students tell storm stories in mosaics
A year later, healing continues
SCHOHARIE In the lobby of Schoharie Junior/Senior High School hangs a colorful mosaic shaped like a map of Schoharie County.
Each of the wooden tiles was decorated by a student or member of the school’s staff. One tile simply states “Irene ’11,” while another contains a broken bridge made out of popsicle sticks and the words “Bridge Out.” There are also words of inspiration; “We are not alone,” one tile reminds those who file past it every day.
Called Pieces of Hope, the mosaic was created last year with the goal of helping students heal from tropical storms Irene and Lee and was officially unveiled during a small ceremony this fall.
Thirteen-year-old Samantha Pierce’s tile includes her card from the Schoharie Free Library, which saw its first floor engulfed by 2 feet of water. Her house was also damaged during Lee by water and debris left behind by Irene, and she spent several days at the home of her aunt.
“It was something we had to deal with,” the eighth grader said, matter-of-factly.
Samantha’s words embody the attitude of many students, said Stacey DeLaney, the school’s principal.
“Everybody was affected by the flood last year,” she said. “The students were affected, the staff was affected.”
Though some students are still struggling, they still come to school and do the normal things the other kids have to do. She said she and her colleagues are attentive to the needs of their students.
“We try to keep a pulse on how they’re doing.”
Last year, children and families in the Schoharie Central School District were reeling from floods that drove many from their homes and destroyed much of their belongings. This year, “it feels a little more normal,” Samantha said.
Even so, reminders of the flood are everywhere.
“I drive down Main Street and I see all the houses that are for sale,” she said.
Staff at the junior-senior high and the adjacent elementary school, which runs through sixth grade, said their students appear to be moving on from last year’s flood. They talk about it less and have mostly returned to their homes or more stable living conditions.
“The students are doing very well,” said Chris Quandt, a social worker at the elementary school. “The flood still comes up, but much, much less than last year. Last year, I couldn’t get through a day without talking about it. ... The students are very resilient.”
Colleen Schlicht, who teaches sixth grade, agreed. Students still mention the flood, but usually when they’re telling a story involving a toy or object lost in the flooding, she said.
“They seem pretty normal,” Schlicht said. “They don’t talk about it much anymore.”
But many families are feeling the pinch of having to rebuild their homes and their lives, said Maryellen Gillis, the elementary school’s principal.
“There are still financial needs,” Gillis said. “Getting back into their homes was a milestone, but there’s a lot of stuff they still need.”
At Schoharie Elementary School, five families remain displaced from their homes, down from 39 in the immediate aftermath of the storms. Ten other families bought new homes, rather than go through the expensive process of rebuilding, according to Gillis, who noted many of these new houses are actually cheap, flood-damaged properties.
“Many of them bought the homes they could afford, and they’re in need of a lot of work,” she said.
Gillis said the school has regularly distributed money and gift cards to families; three weeks ago, 63 families received checks in the amount of about $3,000. For a while, Schoharie Elementary distributed furniture, clothing and other supplies directly to families; this year, the school refers people in need of such items to other agencies.
School officials said their generosity was made possible by donations that came pouring into the school from individuals, church groups and other organizations after the flood.
“We’ve had donations from everywhere,” Quandt said.
The school has a tradition of adopting needy families at Christmas and supplying them with gifts for their children. Prior to the flood, the school generally adopted between eight and 10 families; last year, that number soared to 80. Gillis said she expects the school to adopt this year between 20 and 30 families, many of which are still struggling to recover from the flood.
Gillis said the school was so focused last year on helping children and families that it fell behind on developing a new system of evaluating teachers, as required by the state Department of Education.
“This year, we’ve had to switch our focus to meeting those state ed guidelines,” she said.
Ruth Reeve, superintendent of the Gilboa-Conesville Central School District, said all of her displaced students have found a place to live, although some continue to call FEMA trailers home. But many families took a huge financial hit because of the flood, especially if they had to rebuild or sell their homes at reduced cost, and continue to struggle, she said.
Overall, her students are less stressed than they were last year, Reeve said.
“Our kids are pretty tough,” she said.
Last year, Gilboa-Conesville students created a book, “The Eyes of the Storm: Hurricane Irene In Images & Words,” that included poetry, stories and drawings inspired by the flood; it can be purchased at the school or a number of local businesses, such as The Carrot Barn in Schoharie and the Catskill Mountain Foundation Bookstore.
Reeve said the counselors who visited the school after the flood encouraged the kids to draw and write about their experiences. “They said that it’s very therapeutic for kids to express themselves through the arts,” she said.
Pieces of Hope was a year-long project and the result of a collaboration with Project Hope, which provided crisis counseling to people affected by Irene and Lee. DeLaney said 315 of the school’s 400 students chose to contribute a tile.
Hannah VanDerwerken, 14, was involved in planning Pieces of Hope, serving on one of the committees charged with carrying out the project.
The mosaic “makes me feel really good,” she said. “It’s giving me hope, so it’s giving hope to other people.”
The eighth-grader’s home was heavily damaged by flooding, and her family spent a month living with a friend in Cobleskill before returning to their house in the village of Schoharie. At first, they lived upstairs while rehabbing the first floor, using a microwave for cooking and eating a lot of canned food, Hannah said. In the spring, they were able to begin using the downstairs again.
Hannah said students don’t discuss the flood all that much.
“A lot of people don’t really talk about it.”