Slaybaughstudents offer help for hurricane-struck Keys

Egg Harbor Township students have collected school supplies for communities in the Florida Keys affected by Hurricane Irma. Pictured are second-graders Timothy Rooney and Olivia Walling, and third-graders Jayden Phan, Carlo Castantino, Evetta Svedas, Madison Thom, Erik Dolbow and Scarlet Newkirk.

Bill Barlow / For The Current

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — In an exceptionally tough year for hurricanes, students at the Slaybaugh School have collected school supplies and more for students at the southern tip of the United States.

Plans were for the supplies to be shipped to a school in Sugarloaf Key this week.

Amie Nardone, the computer and technology teacher at Slaybaugh, said as she and other staff watched the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, they wanted to do something to help. They focused their attention on southern Florida because of a local connection. Pete and Joyce Dellas spend part of the year in Florida, and their grandchildren, Bobby Kenney, 9, and Audrianna Kenney, 5, are students in the district.

“They rode out the storm in Key West,” Nardone said in a recent interview at the school. “When we saw the devastation, that’s when we figured we would start there.”

Working with third-grade teacher Kelly Basdekis and guidance counselor Lori Kauffman, they organized a donation drive within the Slaybaugh Primary and Elementary schools.

They collected school supplies, including pens, pencils and notebooks, gift cards for Walmart and Amazon, and games.

“Teachers always need games,” Nardone said.

The items were to be shipped to Harry Russell, the principal of the school in Sugarloaf Key. Irma's eye passed over the island, but the damage was not as bad as in some other areas. The school has become a distribution center for supplies coming in.

“He has been going out to the other areas, to Marathon, to Cudjoe, to the surrounding keys and delivering supplies. He’s been keeping us updated,” said Nardone. She said Russell has sent photos showing extraordinary destruction in some areas.

“Some of the schools were hit very hard and lost everything. So these are things that the students are going to need in their classrooms and in their homes to get their work completed,” said Nardone. “It’s going to help the schools, but he’s also going to see what the kids need for their homes.”

The gift cards could be used for needed items beyond school supplies, she said.

The shipping cost looked to be prohibitively expensive.

“We didn’t have the money for that,” Nardone said. According to Nardone, the teachers contacted the Somers Point post office, and the postmaster organized a collection among the staff to cover the shipping costs.

The collection efforts tie in with a school project with a "Star Wars" theme, calling the students to “Serve like a Jedi.”

It’s not an accident that the collection connects with the theme.

“We had it relate to the collection to show the students how we can serve our community, and our world,” Nardone said. “We need to think not just locally but globally.”

The Keys are a string of tiny islands, including Marathon Key, Cudjoe Key and the well-known Key West, extending well past where the Everglades National Park caps the southern tip of mainland Florida, linked together by a narrow string of the southernmost end of U.S. Route 1. The islands mark the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

They’ve also had a long history of severe damage in hurricanes. In early September, as Irma closed in on the state, Florida saw one of the largest evacuations in its history. The storm did enormous damage as it crossed the tiny islands, with some estimates indicating a quarter of the homes on Key West were destroyed, and far more damaged throughout the Keys.

Once the collected items are sent on their way, the school community will continue to try to help, Nardone said. Last year, a pumpkin-carving contest raised about $1,500 for the Red Cross, and with damage in Houston, Puerto Rico and elsewhere, there is plenty of need to go around.

Some of the students lined up for a photo with the collected items remembered Hurricane Sandy, although for most that storm is now a distant memory. Jayden Phan, a third-grader, remembered a relative staying at his home because of damage on one of the barrier islands. Nardone said both Sandy and the derecho storm of 2012 hit South Jersey hard, and people reached out then.

“Having hurricanes here, and as bad as we’ve seen it, we know we have to help. People come and help us,” she said. “It’s just something that you have to do as a good citizen. You have to give back.”

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