In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy shut down our school for two weeks and rendered more than 240 students homeless. To help my students and members of my educational community who were deeply affected by the storm, I organized a group of volunteer teachers, assistants, bus drivers, and aides from the district who immediately began to assist the families in crisis.
The main goals of our ad-hoc volunteer group were to help with the pressing need for housing and to clean up so that students could return to their homes and their classrooms. Teachers from different school districts and every grade level and subject area came together alongside parents, students, and residents to help restore the town. Communication was a key element of the success of this program, which eventually saved more than 800 home owners over 3 million dollars in clean-up costs through 11,250 hours of work by more than 2,250 volunteers. By communicating nightly with teachers and staff, I coordinated which student families were in need of various services and items. Teachers and district staff who could not help with clean up donated cooked food and supplies. Teachers from all over the country including Biloxi, Mississippi, sent donations to help us and say thank you for the support we sent them in their time of need following Hurricane Katrina. Teachers provided great comfort to their students and often counseled them through the crisis and the weeks following their return to classes.
As word spread via social media, the number of volunteers swelled to include members of the community, the board of education, and students of all ages from elementary school to college. Over the course of the first month, we emptied more than 400 homes, and students were able to return to school once their temporary housing needs were met.
I named the group Stafford Teachers and Residents Together, (S.T.A.R.T.) and it continues today as a non-profit organization that serves the community. Because of our work, the community now has a better understanding of the teachers and staff, and educators know the families and businesses better. There is a greater sense of appreciation for the heroes that the teachers were and still are to their students. Teachers helped restore a sense of community after so much had been destroyed.
One of my moments of greatest satisfaction came when a former student who we helped said, “When I saw Mr. Dunlea and his huge group in my neighborhood, it made me feel relaxed that they took time out of their lives to help people affected by Sandy. With their help, I knew that we would move on faster and get back home soon so that I could focus on school. My teacher that year was also part of this group, and I am thankful that she understood what I was going through. Thank you, Mr. Dunlea, for being in charge of this amazing group!”
The teacher leadership experiences in my career prepared me for the day after the hurricane in ways I never appreciated until it was all said and done. My selection as the 2011 NJ Ocean County Teacher of the Year and State Finalist elevated me into the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I have gone on to be an America Achieves Teacher Fellow as well as the 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow. The skills I acquired through these experiences transferred to my community outreach and, without them, START would never have been created.