Madison district helps families hit by Hurricane Sandy

Effort provides school supplies for students on East Coast

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published December 5, 2012

MADISON HEIGHTS — In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, much of the student body was displaced in hard-hit areas like Brick Township, N.J. Elementary school kids slept on the floor, as their families struggled with the fact that their worldly possessions were gone.

Meanwhile, several states away, in Michigan, two teachers at Wilkinson Middle School were thinking of ways to help.

Christy Berger, an English teacher, and Mike Janigian, a science teacher, pitched an idea to Wilkinson Principal Matt Karaffa. Soon, the idea made its way to Randy Speck, superintendent of Madison District Public Schools.

Called “Madison Makes Cents,” a pun on the district’s “Madison Makes Sense” campaign, the project would be a grassroots initiative raising money for Disaster Relief at Work, or DRAW. DRAW, in turn, would use the money to provide school supplies to students in Brick Township — one less thing for them to worry about at a time when the storm has turned their lives upside-down.

“I sent an email to all the buildings, and they immediately responded, ‘We’re in, let’s do it,’” Speck said. “I then let each building figure out what was the best way to raise money at their schools. It was unanimous — all schools wanted to be involved.”

Between penny drives, bake sales, hat days and soliciting donations at the recent taste festival, students and staff across all of MDPS raised around $2,000 throughout several weeks.

Their contribution bolstered amounts raised by about 10 other districts across the state of Michigan, also going to DRAW to help Brick Township in its moment of need.

Greg Martin, a former youth director for churches across the U.S., quit his job in January to open DRAW, headquartered in Waterford. The licensed 501(c)(3) nonprofit just had its six-month anniversary on Thanksgiving.

Martin recognized a number of needs that often went unfulfilled in relief efforts.

“We saw there was a gap in the supply chain,” Martin said. “Some groups do great things like food and shelter, but we wanted to be able to give out the other supplies that are hard to get, to make those items a priority so people in future disasters would have exactly what they need.”

Different kinds of supplies come in different buckets, from toiletry items to roof-patching materials. DRAW tries to provide the buckets within a day or two of when the disaster strikes.

But for the students in Brick Township, they did things a bit differently, stuffing backpacks with notebooks, folders, rulers, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue sticks, pencil sharpeners and more.

In all, DRAW helped five schools, each with between 200 and 400 students. Around 1,800 supply kits were distributed. 

Martin said the situation in Brick Township was heartbreaking.

“We were working in a couple different communities, and in Brick the storm surge was 9 feet 11 inches,” Martin said. “When we got there, a lot of people were returning to their homes for the first time.”

They returned to find half-submerged homes and the monumental task of salvaging what could be saved before mildew set in.

“There was this guy, Rick — looks like a real tough guy — he’s in there, and we ask if he needs help getting his stuff out, and he says that would be great,” Martin said. “We start lifting the couches and moving the big stuff he can’t move by himself, and he seems really non-emotional. But then we learn he’s married, he has two daughters — an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old — and this is the only home they’ve ever owned, bought four months before.”

When a volunteer found Rick’s wedding album, Rick started crying.

“Two of the volunteers took the valuables salvaging bucket, went through the wedding album and cleaned each photo individually. They were able to save about 95 percent of the wedding album,” Martin said. Then they had to gut everything in the 6-year-old’s bedroom. “There was a tiara on the dresser, and two birthday cards that had been wet for so long they were matted to the dresser. The bed had to be taken apart and thrown away. I looked at one of the volunteers and said, ‘This is too real.’

“This is the big picture,” he said. “You see the storm and it’s amazing — it brings awe to you. If you saw on TV the rollercoaster the storm took out to sea, or the storm surge bringing giant piles of sand to people’s homes, you say, ‘That’s a crazy storm,’ and there’s a voyeuristic side to it. But then you see these are real people who are losing real things: a 6-year-old girl who lost everything in her room, and a guy who just bought a home for his family. Those stories break your heart.”

Speck said that getting Madison students involved in this cause gets them to think about people other than themselves.

“When you, as a school, can teach a lesson that the world doesn’t just revolve around you and there are people in need, we feel like we are doing our job as teachers and as a school district,” Speck said.

Martin said the contributions of Madison district made a real difference.

“We want to get the kids (in Brick) one step closer to normalcy, which is one of the most rewarding experiences,” Martin said. “A backpack might not seem like much, but it’s one more thing they have after the storm. The students who dropped a handful of change into a bucket in Madison Heights will never fully grasp how much they helped those families.”