School communities quietly unite to take Wilma relief into their own hands

There are precious few minutes to steal from the school day.

But in hushed hall conversations, behind office doors, over e-mail and lunch, few students or staff at south Lee schools treated Wilma as either gone or forgotten.

Ashley Tennent, 13, a Bonita Springs Middle School student, carries out one of several dozen bags filled with stuffed animals at Bonita Middle on Tuesday. Students and teachers at the school raised money for local families and also collected donations for elementary school students in Clewiston.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Ashley Tennent, 13, a Bonita Springs Middle School student, carries out one of several dozen bags filled with stuffed animals at Bonita Middle on Tuesday. Students and teachers at the school raised money for local families and also collected donations for elementary school students in Clewiston.

Formal assistance for storm victims came through traditional routes, like large charities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some Wilma angels, though, worked out of the spotlight in the place where children spend most of their waking hours: at school. After Hurricane Wilma stole everything from some Southwest Florida children, school staff, students and parents drew their neediest families close, helping them back on their feet both financially and emotionally.

It didn't take long for those who knew Jacquelín Parra-Corona and her parents to realize the family's plight after they were featured in the Daily News the day after Wilma. The storm destroyed their Glade Haven Park mobile home in eastern Bonita Springs.

Staff at Bonita Springs Elementary pitched in with donations of furniture and other supplies to help the family, who is now living in a tiny FEMA trailer in the same spot where their old home once stood. Another teacher put the family in touch with a local church, who adopted them for the holidays.

"This school is so family oriented," said Grace Rivera, Jacquelín's teacher. "It's like if it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us."

Maria Dolores Parra, her mother, said things have been difficult since the storm, but the kindness of school has been a big help. She smiled last Friday as Jacquelín posed for a photo with Santa Claus at school and took home a bag of new clothes and shoes from Shoes that Fit.

Still, it's been an emotional two months for Maria Dolores Parra, who is expecting a baby in February, and her daughter.

Students and teachers at Bonita Springs Middle School raised money for local families and also collected donations for elementary school students in Clewiston.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Students and teachers at Bonita Springs Middle School raised money for local families and also collected donations for elementary school students in Clewiston.

"It's really thrown her off. It has really affected her," Rivera said of Jacquelín, a kindergarten student.

Local schools also reached out to neighbors more than a few blocks away.

The pre-holiday scramble — only two short months have passed since the late-season storm's arrival in southern Florida on Oct. 24 — didn't deter students and teachers at Bonita Springs Middle School. They again took hurricane-affected families to heart after last year rallying around a Charlotte County family devastated by Charley.

This time they gathered more than 600 toys, 800 books and hand-baked 700 chocolate chip cookies for Clewiston students in neighboring Hendry County.

There, Central Elementary — one of only three in the Clewiston area — was made uninhabitable by Wilma, which raked northeast through southern Florida, sparing much of Lee and Collier but decimating small towns between the east and west coast.

Clewiston was especially hard hit. Now children at Westside Elementary are on an early shift — they go 7:30 a.m. to noon — so Central students can squeeze classes in at the same location.

Scarnato said as far as she knew, Bonita Middle was the only school-based organization to bring any holiday relief to the district's students.

Students and teachers at Bonita Springs Middle School raised money for local families and also collected donations for elementary school students in Clewiston.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Students and teachers at Bonita Springs Middle School raised money for local families and also collected donations for elementary school students in Clewiston.

Bonita Middle's campaign netted goods in no time at the 655-student school.

"Pretty much everybody contributed," said Erica Colvin, 11.

Teacher Barbara Scarnato, who organized the drive, said she was touched by the outpouring of generosity.

"Our school is not a wealthy school by any means, so to give what they gave was just incred ible," said Scarnato, who organized the drive. More than half of Bonita Middle's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

There was no question that kids wanted to reach out to other kids in need, said Niza Alonso, 12.

She said she wanted to help after hearing about the Clewiston students and the many who lost all or part of their home.

"I think kids care more than adults. We have different feelings," Niza said.

It was clear that Wilma's effects took a toll on the area, both physically and economically. Citrus to sugar cane crops — representing employment for many families — were devastated.

Some Clewiston students told Bonita kids their parents would be working on Christmas Day, said Scarnato's daughter, Gabby.

"(The damage) was nothing compared to what it was over here. Central Elementary from what we saw was really bad. You could see part of the roof on the ground," Gabby said. "They were really surprised that we came and that we actually cared about them. They thought no one was paying attention to them because of Katrina."

Parents helped, too. Although the Bonita Springs area was one of Lee County's hardest-hit by the storm, one mother said she wanted to reach out to those whose difficulties have been little-publicized.

"We were very, very fortunate," said Kelli Mason, an Estero resident. She and her daughter Tori, 13, were part of the Bonita Middle team delivering gifts to Clewiston students. "You've gotta do something. It's the least I could do."

Emotionally, schools played a key role in restoring stability in the lives of hurricane-affected students.

When they learned that a student and her family had taken only cold showers since the storm, teachers at Bonita Middle pitched in to help buy a new hot water heater, Scarnato said. They also collected money to help buy Thanksgiving dinners for students who would otherwise make do with sandwiches.

At the same time, teachers and staff also took pains to work behind the scenes so affected students are treated just like every other kid in their classroom.

"We didn't make a big issue out of it," Rivera said. "We just went right back to normal."

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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