Transforming a School, Rebuilding a Community After Hurricane Sandy

Oct 30, 2013

Though his feet splashed in about an inch of water, Principal Brian Walsh could see a water line two feet high marking the walls of Memorial School in Union Beach, N.J. Mud, mulch and who knows what else was scattered throughout the building. Everything was wet.

Students paint hopscotch squares at Union Beach, N.J.'s
Memorial School, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

“The school smelled,” Walsh said, recalling a visit to the school after Hurricane Sandy battered it a year ago this week.

“We got used to the smell of that floodwater everywhere we went. You couldn’t escape it.”

Given the overwhelming damage to the building, the students were divided among four schools in three nearby districts. To Walsh it felt as if the Memorial School family was being split up.

As construction crews made repairs, Sherry Lynn Fazio of Jersey Cares came out to see how her group could help. The organization, part of HandsOn Network, coordinates volunteer opportunities to address critical community needs.

“The first time we visited Memorial School in Union Beach, it was filled with contractors and looked more like a construction site than a school,” she said. “There were areas we couldn’t walk through, no flooring, water-stained walls and Halloween decorations up in the hallways.”

A young volunteer shows his positive attitude.

Insurance would cover much of the physical damage caused by the storm, but it wouldn’t help rebuild the school community. Working with school administrators and Fidelity Investments, Jersey Cares came up with a plan: They would reunite the Memorial School family.

May 18, 2013 became School Transformation Day at Memorial School, marking the first event in a partnership between Fidelity Investments and the school. (The second was a school supply drive during the summer.) Transformation events are part of Fidelity Investments’ national partnership with HandsOn Network to help revitalize the learning environments and support the education needs of 12 schools across the United States.

On School Transformation Day, students, teachers, school staff and Fidelity Investments employees came from all over New Jersey to volunteer at Memorial School. Nearly 150 volunteers, including students from Rafael Cordero and  Saint Peter’s University, in addition to members from the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, participated in the event – contributing a total of 699 hours. (Watch a video of the activities here.)

In a single day, the participants upgraded two teachers’ lounges and created an iPad lounge for the media center. They painted multiple murals in the hallways, painted colorful games on the courtyard blacktop, created a mascot design on the school fencing and built several new seating areas outside.

Volunteers build furniture for Memorial School.

“The human spirit was evident and alive,” Walsh said. “It was incredible.”

Everything from the iPads to the murals sported the Memorial School blue and white. Just weeks before the school reopened, school spirit was coming alive throughout the building.

“We had students painting murals and staining benches and teachers helping with the furniture location throughout the (teachers’) lounges,” Fazio said. “We also had the mural artists sketch restaurants and local businesses in one of the Union Beach murals to really integrate the love of community that permeates the city.”

The school felt like home again.

“The nice thing about teaching in Union Beach is the sense of community; it has always been here,” said teacher Debbie Byrne. “Whenever there is something happening at the school it is a community event – from the Halloween parade to the eighth grade graduation. For us to not be in our school physically was hard. It was so nice to return.”

While the students of Memorial School spent the majority of the last school year in different schools, they’re back together now. Unified.

“Fidelity and Jersey Cares – they did things that took us above and beyond where we were,” Walsh said. “It helped us become stronger than we were before the storm.”