Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Raising $15,000 in 15 days may be daunting to some, but students at Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach embraced the challenge and surpassed that goal by raising nearly $19,000 for hurricane relief.

The money was raised through donations, the majority of which were in response to social media, according to theology teacher Annie Gallagher.

After their fundraiser, the students continued their outreach effort by collecting items for Puerto Rico’s victims of Hurricane Maria.

Days before Hurricane Irma made landfall, Gallagher described the plight of Texans recovering from Hurricane Harvey and told the students about the looming disaster Irma would impend upon Florida. She showed the students a map of Florida with a red cone depicting the projected path of the hurricane. Students, working in small groups, used their Chromebooks to find Catholic schools in Tampa, Miami and the Florida Keys.

Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School students fill a pick-up truck with supplies donated for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
(Photos/Jennifer Neville)

Aid to Key West school

The day before Irma made landfall, the students, in an email to principals at 40 Catholic schools in Florida, offered to help the schools and communities in the aftermath of the hurricane, Gallagher said. After the hurricane swept through Florida, Robert Wright, principal of Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, an elementary school in Key West, responded.

Using Flipgrid, a video discussion platform on their computers, the freshmen asked Wright about the disaster. As he spoke outside, a tree fell, and he jested that he needed a new tree as part of their assistance, Gallagher said.

Gallagher said we are living in a “me” world in which people think “What can I get out of this?” when deciding whether to participate in a program or project.

“While discussing the hurricanes with my classes, I reminded them ‘this is not about us. It is all about them, the people who have lost their homes, their personal possessions,’” Gallagher was quoted in a press release. “These people are our neighbors in need of prayers and help. We are Christ’s hands and feet; we will reach out to help ‘the least of these.’ Love always wins.”

No more ‘me first’

The “me first” belief hit home for freshman Sophia Bernstein. She said students like her stress over tests and quizzes while others in the world, such as those in Florida, face much worse situations.

“It opened my eyes,” she said.

Freshman Caroline LaSalle said helping the hurricane victims has changed her perspective.

“It felt really good to help people who are less fortunate than us at this time,” she said. “We are called in service to God. By doing this, we learned the importance of faith.”

Wright said in a written statement: “Our eight-acre campus resembles a war zone with perhaps 60 percent of trees downed and debris littering playgrounds and fields. Multiple air conditioner units have been smashed by fallen trees. The school’s open hallways are covered in mud and debris. Hardware — classroom doors, locks, hinges, lockers — is already rusting and corroding from being bombarded with salt-laden rain. Classroom furnishings and electronics have suffered damage from salt, rain, and humidity due to lack of climate control. Mold damage to books and soft furnishings is emerging. Our PE shed is gone and with it all equipment — no balls, of any description, jump ropes, etc. Forget the basketball hoops, tetherball posts or soccer nets. The recently erected frame of our new Activity Center/Gym has now begun to rust; priming was underway as the storm struck. This damage will add to the cost, and perhaps set back the completion date.”

In an interview with The Catholic Virginian, Wright said he expected that most, if not all, of the damage to the school will be covered by insurance, so he is turning his attention to people in less fortunate circumstances. He will use the $18,958.91 from BSCHS to assist with tuition for those families whose homes and belongings had such extensive damage that the family can no longer afford the school.

The donation will also help the school’s families recover from the hurricane. For example, the school will provide food, toiletries, clothing, bedding and yard cleanup when needed. It will provide rental assistance through Catholic Charities.

Wright said schools from throughout the nation have reached out to him, and he is humbled by their generosity. He said all of the money will be put to good use.

“Everything that comes in goes right back out,” Wright said. “We need to pay it forward.”

Helping Maria victims

After seeing the success of the fundraiser, Cindy Ortiz, mother of ninth-grader Cynthia Valles Ortiz, emailed Gallagher about having a drive for items for the victims of Hurricane Maria. Again, the students responded, this time collecting water, food, pet food, diapers and wipes. Getting the items to Puerto Rico has been more difficult than anticipated. At press time, items had not yet been sent. BSCHS principal Paul Fallon was looking for options.

For Ortiz and her daughter, the aid for victims of Maria was personal. Ortiz was born in America but moved to Puerto Rico. When Cynthia was nearly six years old, the family moved to the United States. Cynthia said she still has friends and relatives on the island: her maternal grandmother and aunt and her paternal grandparents as well as cousins on both sides of the family.

“It’s sad,” Cynthia said. “I am really upset.”

“I feel we should help each other. They are our brothers and sisters,” she said. “When you do something for someone, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel you are a peacemaker.”

Freshman Nolan Swetla said the outreach projects have given him confidence to help others.

“I think it was really important because it showed me I can reach out to anyone and help them if they need help,” he said. “It made me realize that I need to get involved in current events.”

Fallon said: “Something like this makes them step aside and see the impact they can make on the world. They can see themselves in relation to others. They learn ‘It’s not all about me.’”

He continued, “Obviously this is evangelizing because they are Christ like. We are being his hands and his feet. Hopefully, when they go to sleep at night, they know in their hearts they made a difference.”

Roanoke Catholic responds

Seniors at Roanoke Catholic School ended their hurricane Harvey relief effort this month by sending a check for $9,438.35 to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) in Houston.

The 37 members of the Class of 2018 began the fund drive on Sept. 1 for the SVDP’s “House in a Box” program for Houston families who lost their homes from flooding. Every $2,100 raised provides a family of four with new beds, furniture, kitchen supplies, and other household items.

The students set a goal to raise $6,300 by Sept. 11 for three “Houses in a Box.” Meanwhile, teachers and staff agreed that for every $150 raised, one of them would dress in the RCS school uniform on Sept. 15. If the goal was met, all faculty and staff would be in uniform and all students would earn an out-of-uniform pass on that day.

Within 11 days, the drive raised enough to pay for nearly five “Houses in a Box,” and on Sept. 15, teachers and staff fulfilled their pledge.

Aid for Benedictine schools

At St. Gertrude High School, the Student Cooperative Association (SCA) approached the administration several weeks ago about a fundraiser for the areas hit hardest by the hurricanes. They set a goal of $1,500.

An incentive/reward for reaching the goal was that the students would receive a Spirit Week leading up to Homecoming. The incentive worked as students and their families raised $2,600.

The money was contributed to the International Commission on Benedictine Education which was trying to raise $30,000 for three Benedictine schools in Puerto Rico that were affected by Hurricane Maria.