Leading by example: Orange Park teachers help neighborhood rebuild

Following Hurricane Irma, educators show what community recovery looks like

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – Want to help those who were devastated by Hurricane Irma, but you don’t know where to turn? A group of Orange Park teachers has started a recovery operation -- and the educators could use your help.

At S. Bryan Jennings Elementary, a Title 1 school, all of the students who attend qualify for free breakfast and lunch. Their families don’t have much, and now, many of their belongings have been wiped out by the storm.

At the school, people are now able to drop off donations and even volunteer.

A truck full of supplies rolled up on Thursday, as a result of one simple Facebook post. The community behind the donation sits nowhere near Orange Park.

"(We have) paper plates, paper towels (and) diapers,” said volunteer Donnie Gray, listing just a few of the many items.

Gray just returned from the Fish Hawk and Fish Hawk West area of Tampa, where he has friends who wanted to help -- so together, they loaded up the truck. The supplies came from people with no connection to the community.

Gray’s wife, Lexi, is a teacher at the school: one of many who has been all over the area in the past three days, working to help those who experienced flooded-out homes when McGirt’s Creek turned into a river.

Many of the children were in need even before Irma.
"Last Thursday, several students were a little concerned, you know, knowing their parents were going to have to work -- and did they have enough water, and, you know, expressing some concerns,” school Principal Elise Love said. “And that’s hard to hear,” she said, choking up.

The school cafeteria has become a makeshift donation point, manned by teachers and alumni such as Nate Johnston, who worries about the victims of Irma.

"I feel very sad but thankful we can help them,” Johnston said.

So that’s what people are doing: assisting wherever they can.

"I have some time, so why not just go ahead and donate the time?” Johnston said. “(I’ll) give what I can.”

These acts of kindness are coming just as fatigue and frustration are starting to set in for those whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Irma.

The entire Orange Park neighborhood is uplifted by the teachers’ generosity. Some of these educators could be taking the time off to tend to their own homes and problems. But instead, they’re helping others.
Don Fair, 77, can make light of his flooded Orange Park home because he could have lost everything in it. But he didn’t.

“Come on in and look at the disaster,” Fair said. “Well, we’re starting to dry out because of some of the work they did.”

He is referring to the group of teachers and other helpers from the elementary school.

"Some of our teachers that are here experienced flooding and devastation in their homes, as well,” Love said. “But they're here.”

For three consecutive days, the teachers have been going door to door on Aquarius Concourse, where half of the homes here were devastated by floodwaters.
Not only are they feeding people who are struggling to save what's left inside their homes, they are also doing the heavy lifting.

"Within the last hour, we've got three bedrooms cleared out and half the kitchen cleared out,” said Nick Howard, whose home was damaged by water. “So it's just -- it's amazing. It's taken so (much pressure) off of me."
Two of Howard's three children attend the elementary school. But you don't have to have a child attending the school to soak up the teachers' kindness.

The Fairs, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in November, credit the group for saving one of their most precious mementos.

"Here is my dress (from) 60 years ago,” Don Fair’s wife said.

The Fairs now have a wedding dress spared, a house full of furniture moved to dry land, and, just as their neighbors do, they now have a new set of memories of incredible goodwill in the middle of crisis.
Anyone who wants to donate is welcome. As for supplies, the school is looking for:

  • Boxes
  • Bins
  • Rubber gloves
  • Bleach
  • Disinfecting wipes
  • Sponges
  • Baby wipes
  • Trash bags
  • Non-perishable food
  • Clothes (all sizes)
  • New undergarments (all sizes)
  • Scrub brushes
  • Sheets
  • Pillows
  • Towels
  • All paper goods (toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, etc.)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Pet food

You can drop those items off at the school starting at 9 a.m. Friday, and from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday. Volunteers are appreciated, as well. You can enter the cafeteria with yourselves or your donations from the back of the school.

For furniture donations, contact angela.kite@myoneclay.net. The goods will be made available to anyone in the area who needs them.

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