SOMERVILLE, NJ – It takes three hours and 50 minutes to fly from Newark to Houston, Texas, a distance of 1,617 miles, plenty of time for Susan Moran to overcome her anxiety and figure out what she was going to do to help a displaced elementary school principal, her staff and 600 students struggling to regain their footing after their lives were turned upside down by Hurricane Harvey.
Straight from the airport, she arrived at the school’s front door in time for lunch, her suitcase and some trepidation in tow, just like so many students on their first day of school.
“I was a nervous wreck, I didn’t know what to expect,” Moran said.
Moran, the K-2 principal of Van Derveer School had volunteered through a grass roots principal-to-principal organization to spend three days with Julie Dickinson, her counterpart at the Kolter School in Houston, helping to launch the new school year under difficult circumstances.
Dickinson’s elementary school was rendered uninhabitable by four feet of putrid water; the school district scrambled to find another suitable building, an abandoned private school that was to have been demolished to make way for baseball fields. Volunteer work crews from Missouri went to work reclaiming the building and in a few weeks, had installed new floor tile, applied a fresh coat of paint and put things in order in time for the delayed opening.
The staff christened the new school “Kolter North.”
Whereas the K-5 students had been able to walk to their neighborhood school, they now had to take a bus to the new school. Mapping out bus routes was one of the first tasks Moran tackled with Dickinson. Moran also handled morning announcements and took a trip to a home supply store to buy garbage cans for the Houston elementary school.
Their long-distance working relationship began soon after school opened in Somerville; Moran said her teachers were determined to do something to help their counterparts in Texas. They gathered supplies – “teachers are always buying stuff to keep in their supply closets,” she explained, and in short order had packed up 20 boxes of needed supplies – books, writing materials and more.
By that time, Moran had been introduced to Dickinson, and they continued to exchange emails and text messages; it was apparent that Dickinson needed help.
“This poor woman needed someone who understood. She needed time, a fresh set of eyes and someone who understands the logistics of being a principal,” Moran said.
Moran said she was driving to school one morning soon after the supplies had been shipped and convinced herself that she was needed in Texas.
“I’m thinking, ‘there has to be more that we can be doing.’ It’s not just crayons, scissors and pencils. She needs a body,” Moran recalled.
Moran approached Somerville Schools Supt. Tim Teehan, who listened and said he’d think it over; the next day, he approved her trip to Texas.
Her staff at Van Derveer was all for it, as was her family.
“I sent her a message and said I was thinking about coming to help her,” Moran said.
Dickinson replied, “That’s the best news I’ve heard in weeks.”
Harvey made landfall in Texas Aug. 25; the Category IV hurricane lingered for days, with record rainfall and flooding of historic proportions. Dozens were killed, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and the daily routines for 2.4 million people in the nation’s fourth largest city were upended – including the 600 students, staff and teachers from the Kolter School.
Moran wasn't quite sure where she would be needed, but trusted her instincts; it wasn’t long before she fit right in.
“Children are children, teachers are teachers, whether you’re in New Jersey or Texas,” she said. “Kids needed their sneakers tied, they needed someone to wipe away their tears, they needed reassurance. They lost everything they knew.
“What was amazing to me, despite what they had gone through, those kids hadn’t missed a beat,” she added. “They were back in school, they were learning, they were happy and they were with their friends.”
Moran stayed with Dickinson at her parent’s house. Dickinson turned over her apartment to one of her teachers who had lost her home. Four teachers from the staff of 55 lost their homes to the hurricane.
Despite their hardships, Moran said everyone has been supportive of one another; members of the school’s PTO arranged for a caterer to be at the school at the end of the first day of classes to send home hot meals with all of the teachers.
It wasn’t until her final day in Texas that Moran took the time to see first-hand the devastation wrought by Harvey.
She was overwhelmed by what she saw.
“We drove around so she could show me their school. She wanted me to see where they had come from. Wherever you look, you saw devastation, all of their belongings on the street piled up, just piles and pile of debris,” Moran said.
Moran is back at work at Van Derveer and said the relationship between the two schools will only continue to grow. Her good work in Houston convinced others in the Somerville school district to pitch in and help.
The Peer Leadership group at Somerville High School, under the direction of Marybeth Annese, Peer Leadership advisor, has raised $1,200 in student donations and will be reaching out to Dickinson for a 'big ticket' donation, according to Moran.