Adversity: Rising From Katrina's Destruction


After Hurricane Katrina swept through Ocean Springs, many were left homeless and jobless. But the PTO persevered, arranging for spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts, and more to keep the community together, making them PTO Today's pick for the 2006 Parent Group of the Year for Outstanding Effort To Overcome Adversity.

by Joy Underhill


PTOs are typically involved in raising funds for needed school operations and enhancements, promoting literacy, and building parent involvement in education. But when a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina hits, parent groups can do much more.

That’s what the community at St. Alphonsus Catholic School in Ocean Springs, Miss., learned in the aftermath of a storm that left the school flood-damaged and unable to function just three weeks into the 2005-06 school year.

St. Alphonsus PTO typically raises $70,000 to help fund school activities. But when Katrina hit, the school community learned that it could wait to upgrade bathrooms and improve playing fields.

Although the classrooms had only minor water damage, all of the kitchen equipment in the cafeteria was ruined and the roof was irreparably damaged. Air conditioners were inoperable because of saltwater damage, and the school bus had literally floated away. Three weeks of classroom time was lost as toppled trees were removed and floors, walls, and equipment were washed. Parents and parishioners sorted through and distributed the truckloads of donated school supplies that filled the gymnasium.

“We were all in the same boat after the storm,” says Miriam Jones, the principal at St. Alphonsus. “The storm leveled the playing field as nothing else could. We learned to live with less in less space, and also how to share our resources.”

Like other Gulf Coast communities, St. Alphonsus faced dozens of questions without easy answers: Who was safe and who had been lost? Who had left their homes? Who was staying with relatives? Did they have the basics? What did they need? Where would they find food, water, and transportation? Supplies? What could be salvaged from the muddy mess left behind?

After Katrina, people were looking for places that could define a sense of community. These turned out to be schools, churches, and, in some cases, places of employment. “We were lucky because Ocean Springs still had some of those places standing. The neediest cities had lost everything that could be used to restore a community framework,” says PTO President Ruth Heitkamp.

Principal Jones set a profound example for leadership. She, like nearly half the teachers, had lost her home. Rather than allow herself to be dragged down by her circumstances, though, she turned to the practical side of things. She needed to be at school anyway, so she and her husband set up a pop-up camper on the school grounds and lived there.

The situation for many other families wasn’t as easily solved, however. With no homes, no jobs, and no insurance, these families couldn’t get the basics, let alone school tuition and uniforms. “Our primary goal was keeping our enrollment stable,” notes Heitkamp, “and we did this in part through tuition assistance in the face of unimaginable obstacles.”

St. Alphonsus needed funds and a lot of elbow grease—but how do you ask for more from people who have lost everything?

Getting Back to the New Normal

It may sound strange that the school should focus on a fall festival when there was so much to do. But a sense of normalcy was exactly what the community needed. Jones was determined that even though St. Alphonsus would need to modify some school activities, none of them would be canceled. “Hearts and Hands of Faith” was the PTO’s Fall Festival kickoff as the school struggled to rebuild and heal. What people learned along the way was that their social wealth—how they gave of their time and talents—made the difference in the lives of their families and the greater Gulf Coast community.

The fall festival began with a successful spaghetti dinner. That Saturday, the first rainfall in six weeks resulted in a washout and a demoralizing 24-hour delay. Sunday brought back the sunshine, plenty of families, food, games, and a much-needed sense of fun. A benefit concert sold out, and $25,000 was raised for both school repairs and tuition assistance.

The holiday season was a difficult time. The full extent of the devastation had finally sunk in, and most families spent Thanksgiving working on their homes or settling into FEMA-supplied trailers. Many people, exhausted from the cleanup efforts, just wanted the holidays to be over.

To help change the dynamic, parent volunteers cooked up pancakes for a “breakfast with Santa.” Besides activities like singing carols and visiting with St. Nick, parents were treated to time away from the destruction to simply enjoy being with their children. St. Alphonsus traditionally held an elaborate Christmas pageant, and they continued the custom in 2005. “It’s amazing what you can do with white sheets, sparkling lights, and a lot of pretend snow!” Heitkamp says. Fifth-graders went caroling at a nearby rehabilitation facility.

The response from the community was overwhelming, and donations also poured in from strangers across the country. She recalls how aid came just when it was needed. “Christmas ornaments appeared from a middle school in Maryland and churches in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri. A church in Ohio sent a truckload of toys, enough for each student to receive one,” she says. “The generosity was just amazing.”

During the second half of the school year, cleanup efforts were showing results, but the bleak landscape along the coast raised questions about what would happen next year with so many families still struggling. The PTO stepped up efforts to raise funds through other activities during the remainder of the year, including:

  • Valentine’s Day balloon gifts for each child, which cost $3 apiece and resulted in more than the 273 balloons needed.
  • A charity event with food, live entertainment, dancing, a silent auction, and a chance to win $5,000. The greater Gulf Coast community donated $20,000 in auction merchandise, and sponsorships totaled $11,000. More than 400 people attended, raising $34,000 for the school.
  • Cookie dough sales, which raised $8,500 from 1,500 tubs of dough.
  • Grant applications for aid.

PTO vice president Dorothy Saad-Dunning remembers how the PTO struggled with the idea of fundraisers. “We hesitated to do them at all since so many people had lost so much,” she says. “But with each fundraiser, we gave people the chance to donate a few extra dollars to a special fund used by the principal to help the neediest of people. It was heartwarming to see how people found a way to dig a little deeper.”

With all the focus on the children, the PTO remembered to honor the teachers as well by holding special events during Teacher Appreciation Week. Massages, a luncheon, a tea, and a “salad spectacular” helped show gratitude for all the teachers had done during the year.

Although finances were a factor, it became apparent that money was not the major concern. “During the worst of life’s events,” says Saad-Dunning, “who you are or what you have doesn’t mean as much as lending a helping hand!”

Pictures and Stories

Saad-Dunning and her husband chronicled the devastation in a series of photos of Biloxi and Gulfport that they turned into a book, Katrina: The Storm of the Century. “These were pictures you may not have seen on the news,” Saad-Dunning says. “We decided to assemble the book and sell it, donating $10 per copy to the assistance fund set up by the principal.”

Fifth-grade teachers Brenda Foster and Barbara Jones were looking for a way to thank the people who had aided the school. The result was Katrina: Our Story, written and illustrated by 5th grade students.

The book, dedicated to volunteers and presented to people who helped with the school’s relief efforts, chronicles the disaster from the children’s eyes. “The electricity went off,” reads one entry, “and I could hear the heavy, pounding rain and roaring wind. We started downstairs, but the water was rising up the staircase and I started crying because I didn’t want to leave my house.” Another student writes, “We took a walk through the neighborhood after the storm and saw fish and snakes in the street. There were clothes, debris, plastic bags, everything in the trees.”

A third book is in the works, slated for publication in fall 2006. Katrina: A Story of Fear, Survival, Loss, and Hope also was penned by St. Alphonsus students; sales profits will be used to supplement the tuition assistance fund. The children help decide what will be done with the book, giving them leadership experience.

In Katrina: Our Story, 5th grader Jack Wilson sums up the sentiments still felt today as St. Alphonsus prepares for the challenges of a new year. “Katrina was bad and sad, but we are getting through it. We wish it had never happened. A lot of people’s homes are gone; a lot of lives are also gone. The Gulf Coast was bright but now is gloomy, but the sun will come out again. We are going to make it, no matter what.”

Group at a Glance

Name: St. Alphonsus Catholic School PTO
Location: Ocean Springs, Miss.
Community: population 17,783; suburban
School Size: 278 students, grades preK-6
Annual Budget: $70,000

Be Prepared!

One of the lessons learned from a disaster is how important preparation becomes. Take the time to have your affairs in order in case you have to leave on a moment’s notice.

On the practical side:

  • Keep up-to-date phone lists for all personnel. Make sure you know where these lists are stored and can access them in a hurry.
  • Have teachers collect basic information about their students. This includes contact information and emergency phone numbers.
  • Create financial records that are current and portable. This will be invaluable if you have to vacate quickly and will be dealing with insurance companies.
  • Know where utility cutoffs are located for each building. You should also learn how to secure buildings in an emergency.
  • Have a disaster plan.
  • Postpone tuition payments and create scholarships for families that are struggling.
  • Pack up valuables that can’t be replaced. They are what you will miss most if they are lost.

On the emotional side:

  • Don’t look too far ahead. Disasters can take years to recover from, and it’s better to stay focused on what you can do today.
  • Establish normal routines when possible. This will help stabilize the community and reassure people that progress is being made.
  • Support the children. If parents feel that their kids are OK, they’ll be OK, too.
  • Lean on one another. When the tasks at hand become overwhelming, talk to others to gain encouragement.

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