“When appropriate, help someone else” is one of five simple rules practiced by Emily Brittain Elementary in Butler, Pa. For the 2005-06 school year, students, teachers, and administrators took this sentiment to heart in putting together a service project to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In late fall 2005, Emily Brittain adopted Saucier Elementary in Mississippi as part of the school’s Kids Helping Kids project. Within months, shipments were arriving not only from Emily Brittain but from five other Butler schools.

“We learned that 90 percent of the people were living in tents, many times huddled under only a single towel provided by the Red Cross,” says PTO President Joyce Rauschenberger.

The Emily Brittain PTO had supported a local military unit stationed in Iraq in 2004-05, and parents were looking for a different service project. During an October PTO meeting, they decided to identify a Gulf-area school that needed help. Finding one similar to Emily Brittain soon became a top priority.

“We wanted to make a difference and have our kids relate to the kids they were helping,” Rauschenberger notes. “We kept seeing schools with major needs, which we didn’t feel we could meet. When we learned about Saucier, I called Yvonne Ball, the principal, to see what we could do.”

It soon became apparent that although the Saucier school itself needed basic supplies and some repairs, its families were in desperate straits. As a rural community, Saucier missed out on much of the relief efforts taking place in nearby Gulfport and Biloxi. Nighttime temperatures were dropping to the 40s and people still needed essentials like blankets, clothing, and coats.

“We didn’t know how our little school could give only 50 sleeping bags when 500 were needed,” Rauschenberger says, “so our PTO put out the word to parent groups at neighboring schools for help. It was a group effort from the start.”

The PTO showed a PowerPoint presentation at its November meeting that highlighted the extent of the damage in Saucier and surrounding areas. People had lost homes and jobs, but even if they were able to purchase what they needed, stores weren’t stocked. Many parents in attendance were moved to tears as they realized that children who were sleeping on the ground were the same ages as their own kids.

That’s when donations started pouring in—especially basics like bedding and winter coats. In fact, so much was coming in that storage, organization, and packaging quickly became a major concern.

With collected goods overflowing the copier boxes placed outside classrooms, the PTO created drop-off zones at the front of the school so kids could donate as soon as they got off the bus. Items were sorted and packed by volunteers, staff members and sixth-graders. Devoted groups of students would rush through lunch to help pack in the time that remained. “We tried to put as much detail about what was in each box so that unloading would be easier at Saucier,” Rauschenberger recalls.

Once boxed, the donations were taken to a local shipping dock, loaded onto pallets, shrink-wrapped, and weighed. The trucks could be tracked via company websites as they made their way to Saucier, some by circuitous routes. Corporate connections offered reduced shipping fees, and packing supplies were donated.

Sending the First Shipment

In December, Principal Dale Markle and sixth-grade teacher Jesse Allen filled the school van to capacity with late donations and started a 17-hour trip to Saucier with a goal of reaching the school by the 16th, the last day of classes. The van also held fleece scarves crafted by third-graders, a donated VCR/DVD player, a TV, and a tent—with no hotels open anywhere near Saucier, Markle and Allen were planning to camp out, just as many students were still doing. Two local newspapers followed the story and published front-page articles.

Saucier Principal Yvonne Ball had chosen not to tell anyone at the school of the pending deliveries. The tears began to flow as the TV and VCR/DVD player were unloaded and set up, both of which were used to show what Emily Brittain and its students looked like. Some images startled the Saucier students, many of whom had never seen snow.

The next day, the trailer arrived loaded with 10 pallets—5,000 pounds—of donated items. Fifth- and sixth-grade students helped unload and organize items in the gymnasium, where children could “shop” for what they needed. One girl dragged away a box full of pots and pans because she missed her mother’s homemade cooking. Markle and Allen took photos of the events at Saucier to show students at Emily Brittain.

“When the van pulled up, we couldn’t believe that people would work so hard to provide for our little school,” says Cindy Hahn, lead teacher at Saucier. “The students were so excited to receive blankets, coats, hats, socks, and books.” Indeed, most of the children looked for necessities and bypassed the toys.

Tons of Donations

The December shipment turned out to be only the beginning. Emily Brittain continued collecting as word got out about the aid effort. Donations arrived from all over the area, and by mid-January, another 3,500 pounds were ready for shipment. This time, the costly shipping fees were waived entirely.

A third major shipment was planned for Valentine’s Day, when Saucier parents would be visiting their kids’ school. By then, families were beginning to move back into their homes and urgently needed cleaning supplies. Donations of mops, brooms, paper towels, sponges, and mold removers began arriving. Children at Emily Brittain created Valentine’s Day cards and bought books with publisher rebates for each kindergarten and first-grade student at Saucier.

The response was so overwhelming that two shipments totaling 11,500 lbs. were sent two weeks apart. That included $1,000 in donated gift cards to big-box hardware stores. Emily Brittain parents also discovered that they had banked more than 5,000 Campbell’s Soup labels, which they used to purchase playground equipment that was included in shipments.

Throughout the school year, Emily Brittain managed to collect and ship nearly 11 tons of goods to Saucier—so much that Saucier began distributing extra items to three needy schools in Hancock County, Miss.

“What we couldn’t anticipate was the cost of shipping, but somehow things just fell into place,” Rauschenberger recalls. “We needed money to help make the first shipment, which we raised from our annual Santa Shoppe event. This is not usually a moneymaker for us, but this year we made $300 in profit—just enough to cover the shipping expenses that were not donated.”

Rauschenberger says that one of the group’s goals was for Emily Brittain students to connect with kids at Saucier. “And they did,” she says. “Students exchanged letters and mementos. During Mardi Gras, Saucier sent up several King Cake gift boxes, complete with colorful napkins, plates, Mardi Gras beads, and coins.”

The connection has extended even beyond the school year. During the summer, five Emily Brittain staff members spent a week helping refurbish a library and gymnasium in a Hancock County school that was harder hit than Saucier.

Emily Brittain Principal Markle was there and was able to drive through the area. “Things are much better than they were during our first visit in December, but there’s much to be done,” he says. “Some people are still having a tough time of it.” Markle says he lives by the motto adopted at Emily Brittain—the one that describes what helping out is all about: “Instead of pointing a finger, hold out a hand.”

Editor's Note: As winner of the category Outstanding Job on a Completed Major Project, Emily Brittain PTO received $150 from PTO Today, plus $300 worth of school supplies from the sponsor of the 2006 Parent Group of the Year search, Educational Products Inc. In recognition of the spirit of this outstanding service project, both PTO Today and EPI presented the same awards to Saucier Elementary. Congratulations to Emily Brittain PTO, and best wishes from all of us to the Saucier community.

Outstanding Appreciation Idea

Besides planning and implementing the Katrina relief collection, the Emily Brittain PTO made sure to give back to its own members: Parent group leaders passed out customized planning calendars to the elementary school’s 50-plus faculty members. The calendars, which came with the school name and mascot printed on the front, cost less than $5 apiece.

“All our teachers already used desk planners similar to the ones we purchased for them,” says PTO President Joyce Rauschenberger. “In the past, our teachers purchased these calendars themselves, using funds that otherwise could be spend on classroom supplies.”

PTO volunteers printed clear labels with 122 school and parent group events, holidays, and other items, then placed the stickers throughout the calendar for teachers’ reference. Tables with the names and contact information for PTO leaders and the classroom extensions of all faculty members were added at the end.

The calendars were distributed at the first inservice day before school started. “We heard countless ‘thank you’s’ from our staff members,” Rauschenberger says. “Many told us over and over again how useful they are and how they use them every single day.”

Group at a Glance

Name: Emily Brittain Elementary PTO
Location: Butler, Pa.
Community: population 14,521; suburban
School Size: 450 students, grades K-6
Annual Budget: $15,700

Tips for Organizing a Major Project

Choose carefully. Pick a cause that givers can relate to. The Emily Brittain PTO intentionally looked for a school of a similar size and grade range that wasn’t rebuilding from the ground up.

Get a list of what’s needed and keep it up to date. Initially, people needed the survival basics they lost in the storm: bedding, clothing, personal items, and cold-weather wear. When families started moving back into their homes, cleaning supplies were in great demand. As they became more settled, people requested paint and new appliances.

Contact the media early. Many news organizations require three weeks or more to cover major stories. Dedicate a volunteer to handling press releases and other publicity.

Keep givers informed and share information. Use traditional channels such as newsletters and memos home, and don’t forget to include personal stories. The Emily Brittain PTO did a PowerPoint presentation that showed the extent of the damage and the families that were being helped. Track packages and volunteers as they travel and use the information to teach U.S. geography.

Find charitable backers early in the project. Think about how goods will be packed and delivered. Ask whether anyone has business contacts that could offer reduced shipping fees. Always request that services be discounted or donated.

Secure an off-campus drop-off and storage facility. With a large collection project, security and space can become a problem. An off-site location is easier for drop-offs by working parents, makes scheduling volunteers simpler, and allows the collection of items like strong cleaning agents, which children shouldn’t bring to school.