Banding Together To Clean Up Gifft Hill School In U.S. Virgin Islands

Gifft Hill School

On September 6th, Hurricane Irma tore through the U.S. Virgin Islands, causing untold damage and devastation to once idyllic St. John and St. Thomas. Two weeks later, another Category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria, hit the Caribbean and caused even more destruction. Green Schools Alliance reached out to our member schools on the islands and got a response from Molly Murrill, Assistant to the Director of Advancement & Communications Director at Gifft Hill School in St. John

How has the recent natural disaster affected your community? 

The island of St. John was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The island will be without power for months. Most people living on the island collect their water from the rain, which is stored in cisterns below the homes. Without power to run a water pump, the only way to access water for bathing, washing dishes, cleaning, etc. is by the bucket-full from the cistern. Anyone who had UV water filtration systems in their homes can't use them as they require power. Generators are the only way to provide power at this point, but not everyone has one and those who do can only run them for a few hours per day because of fuel. Our local banks are just starting to reopen. Our post office is currently only open to distribute mail that had arrived before the storms. All of our USPS mail clears through Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, so with all the devastation they have endured, that delays mail getting to us. People have to stand in lines for water, ice, fuel, and are excited when the grocery store received its first shipment of fresh produce this week. Most businesses are closed, but those that are open require cash as payment. Life is challenging! At our school, our buildings suffered damage, but it wasn't catastrophic. Our buildings are largely intact but require ongoing repair and heavy clean up. 
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How or where did you start your recovery efforts? 

Our school community came together in the initial days following Hurricane Irma, and a rotating group of volunteers, alongside our staff and trustees, has come together to help clean up.  Everything from repairing the playground fence to shoveling soggy ceiling tiles to mopping gallons of standing water—the list goes on and on—was performed by a mighty group of people.
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How are you talking about these disasters with your students and can we learn anything from what has happened? 

At GHS, we are encouraging our students to share their personal experiences during and after the hurricanes.  By expressing our individual experiences through discussion and art, we are beginning the healing process as a community.  Every day we add to the "Wall of Gratitude" to show our appreciation for food, water, shelter as well as having a school to attend with our friends, old and new.
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What are some things that students and educators can do to spread awareness of the issues regarding these events and help our communities and schools become more resilient in the future? 

In moments of disaster, educators can do what they do every day—provide a safe and structured learning environment.  It is difficult to know every single difficulty each student is facing at home after a disaster.  If we can provide a roof, a meal, engaging learning activities, all in a safe environment, we will be able to give many students the stability they were used to pre-storms. 

What can we as the GSA do to help your school community directly? 

Spreading the word about St. John and our school to keep it in the forefront of people's minds would be helpful.  We need lots of financial support to remain tuition-free for as long as we're able---something we began after the storms.  New friendships and partnerships with other schools are helpful, as it's good for our students and staff to know they have support and help from afar.  We are a strong community, and we will come back from this—hopefully stronger than ever before.  
Comments from Nathan Wheatley, kindergarten student: 
"I wasn't scared a bit. I was with my mom and dad the whole time. Now we have two roofs—our neighbor's fell onto ours! I've seen lots of jets since the storms. Two even flew right over us at Trunk Bay! I'm happy a lot of my friends are still here in school with me.  And the trees at school are already starting to grow back!" 

Comments from Justin Richards, 5th grade student:
"The two front doors blew out from my house. We've been sweeping a lot of water and mud out. If we all share our resources and supplies, we can help each other out. I think we can help each other by getting to know our neighbors and seeing if they need help. I am thankful that people helped clean the school and I can still come here."

Comments from Jessamyn Souders, GHS school counselor:
"In times of disaster, it is important to remember every student is experiencing grief at some level.  Maybe they've lost a loved one. Maybe they've lost their home. Maybe they've lost everything.  As educators, our students look to us for support and consistency. Our school's compassionate community allows for a safe place to grieve and begin the healing process."

Find out more about Gifft Hill School and how you can help here.

Posted by Michelle Long on Nov 13, 2017 2:53 PM America/Chicago


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