Teacher recalls personal Harvey relief effort

Harvey roared . . . not the tiger, but the hurricane. In its path was St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School of Port Arthur, Texas, a small pre-K to 8th grade school with approximately 180 students. When our Ascension Catholic faculty began to search for a place to help, we knew we wanted to be able to make a difference. We saw many schools completely destroyed and families fleeing the area . . . we knew that we could not make a dent in that situation. As we examined schools from Corpus Christi to Louisiana, knowing we could find the right fit if we just kept looking, St. Catherine’s caught our eye. It just felt right. Seeing their motto, “Changing the world, one good deed at a time,” we knew. This was the place our small deed could make a difference. Getting permission to contact the school and verify their damage, I placed a call to St. Catherine’s Church. The secretary was more than appreciative and helpful. She indicated that not only had the school flooded, but many of the students’ homes had also been flooded.

We immediately sent out a letter to our school families announcing that we wanted to help these students. Last year, our school had been spared, but we saw the devastation of flooding all around us. Our students had reached out and helped then, too, mostly through physical labor. This would be different. Assigning each grade from pre-K 3 to 8th two types of school supplies, and asking 9th to 12th grade for book bags and backpacks, we began a week-long collection. Our 8th graders picked up supplies daily at the Primary school and sorted items into boxes. Once everything was collected, our seniors began packing the bags.

One of our former principals, Janice Burns took some of the donation money (over and above the supplies) and went shopping. One of our alums, Jeanne Dubis St. Germain, at Tanger Outlet in Gonzales, helped her to shop by offering some very enticing discounts at their stores. Then Mrs. Burns bargained with Wal-Mart and received help from them.

Our pastor, Fr. Paul Yi, upon hearing which school we would be helping, realized that he, too, had a connection. Their pastor, Fr. Rodel Faller, had been a classmate of Fr. Paul’s in the seminary. Fr. Paul had conducted a drive at St. Francis and Ascension of Our Lord churches for gift cards. He was more than happy to turn those over to us to include in our gift to St. Catherine’s. With the 182 book bags packed with school supplies and donations of money and gift cards from our school family and churches, totaling approximately $4,500, we were ready.

How should we get the donations there? Well, anyone could pack a car and take them. Service, right? How would our students be able to feel a real connection to these students? Of course, pack a bus and bring them with you. I am sure a school day would have been ideal and would have required more than one bus to accommodate volunteers. However, a Saturday bus trip was more practical. That morning, fourteen dedicated young men and women got to school at 6:00 a.m., packed the 182 book bags and many class sets of books from our primary school, along with extra supplies, and demonstrated an enthusiasm that didn’t diminish during the twelve hour trip!

Meeting Haidee Todora, principal, and Marcia Stevens, Beaumont’s Diocesan Superintendent, we found an instant connection. Fr. Faller came to greet us as well. We were able to get the bags, books, and extra supplies to the gym through an assembly line, and then we took a tour of the school. While the building still stands and has been disinfected and abated, there is still much to be done. Gift cards and cash donations will go a long way to accomplish this goal. Their faculty members are “true school teachers,” scavenging and obtaining things others might toss aside. Although the building showed signs of flooding, you could also see the love of Christ and the pride with which care had been taken to preserve what they could salvage. As Mrs. Todora reached each room and pointed out the devastation and what had survived, you could feel her love for this school, for this home away from home for their students, and for this place where students began their education, not only of academics, but also the faith-filled life they would continue to cherish into adulthood.

Mrs. Todora said that she was inspired by our students, and while others may have given more than we had, she was touched by the fact that our students had given up their Saturday to be of service to those they had never met, to help with no thought of reward, and to do it all with an exuberance for life and the true meaning of giving and service.

Living out our mission statement, “Ascension Catholic educates and develops the mind, body, and spirit of each student to know, love, and serve God, self, and others in a safe and caring environment,” these students felt a satisfaction and pride in what they had done. They even shared our administrator’s “I Love You” symbol and explained its meaning. They also shared the daily message of our administrator, “Make good choices. Let something good be done. Let something good be said. And always remember, I love you.”

Long after the “roar” of Harvey becomes a distant memory, the special connection between Ascension Catholic and St. Catherine’s will continue to inspire and renew faith and hope in the families and students of these two small Catholic schools.