Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sugarloaf Finds a Friend in Space Coast

Swirling around the paralyzing tension and gripping fears of Irma is a story of two schools that illustrates how the power of a hurricane pales in comparison to the forces of kindness.

Along with millions of others, Mrs. Sylvia Mijuskovic (a.k.a., “Mrs. M”), the principal of Space Coast Junior Senior High School Vipers in Brevard County, Florida, closely monitored Irma’s path as it relentlessly huffed, puffed, and poured its way across the center of the Keys and eventually churned its way up the western coast of Florida.

During the storm, Mrs. M had managed a school shelter to ensure the safety of families in her community.  Relieved the Space Coast area did not sustain the debilitating damages that had been forecasted as possible, she immediately turned her attention to other areas she could potentially help.

As post-storm reports gradually captured the widespread devastation Irma left behind, Mrs. M came across a Facebook post requesting fundraising adoptions of affected schools that were in dire need.  Anxious to help, Mrs. M decided to include students, teachers, and staff at Space Coast in committing to a school-wide adoption of the Sugarloaf School Sharks in Monroe County, Florida.

Sugarloaf Key had been pummeled by sustained winds upwards of 130 mph.  Irma’s impact caused short-term challenges such as power outages, limited access to food and water, and empty gas tanks.  A much longer-term impact was the loss of hundreds of homes, with roughly four out of five Sugarloaf Key residents facing the daunting reality of having nowhere to call home. 

Roughly 25% of homes in the Florida Keys were destroyed by Hurricane Irma,
and residents of Sugarloaf Key faced a much higher rate of home loss.

“There is not enough lodging for all of the displaced people here,” said Maria Allen, an Administrative Assistant at Sugarloaf School.

Many Sugarloaf School staff and students lost everything they held dear to Irma.  With so many families facing housing shortages, nearly 100 students who attended Sugarloaf before the storm have had to seek schooling in other areas, and several staff members have also struggled to find a new place to live.

As Irma battered the Keys, Sugarloaf School housed over 500 residents seeking refuge from the storm. In the storm’s aftermath, Sugarloaf School extended lodging beyond campus walls with huge tents. It also formed a distribution center where supplies are collected, packaged, and distributed for any Keys-based family, individual, or school in need. 

Sugarloaf School’s principal, Mr. Harry Russell, described how the distribution center aimed to meet the diverse needs of families. “We sent home letters to families asking them what they needed, and we sent supplies out to help those families.”  

Sugarloaf School teachers, staff, and families banded together for campus clean-up efforts that
included removing debris and ensuring facilities were safe for students to return.

Maintaining hope is a tall order amidst the sheer devastation of the storm, but the spirit of the Sugarloaf Key community has not wavered.

“The community is coming together to support one another and to help each other,” said Mr. Russell.

Ms. Allen agrees. “Everybody is looking to each other as a brother or a sister. It brought us more together. If you needed a shoulder to cry on, you had four or five people ready to give you a hug.”

Facing an arduous path to the return of normalcy, perhaps most impressive is how Sugarloaf students have responded. “Kids are resilient,” said Mr. Russell. “Many of them were used to living in a house or an apartment, and came back to find they don’t have a home."

Much progress has been made, but due to the magnitude of the storm and the severity of obstacles it left behind, fundraising efforts must continue to surge forward.

“This is going to be a long recovery for people,” said Mr. Russell. “This is a year or two year process, at least."

Sugarloaf School Assistant Principal, Kelley Lanier (left), and Principal Harry Russell, have worked relentlessly to support Irma-impacted areas in the Keys. On this day, Ms. Lanier and Mr. Russell, along with Ms. Maria Allen, went door-to-door to provide food and cleaning supplies to families in hard-hit Big Pine Key.

Grateful that Sugarloaf School has received ample classroom and school-related supplies, Mr. Russell emphasized a need for the donation of gift cards to Publix or Home Depot to personalize the act of giving. “With gift cards we can say to families, ‘Here’s a gift card for you to go get whatever it is you need.’ It reinstalls a feeling of independence so families can pick up something that they need.”

Mrs. M and Space Coast Junior Senior High School stand firmly behind Mr. Russell and Sugarloaf School. “My goal for Sugarloaf is that we don’t just do a one shot deal upon the sudden impact of the hurricane,” said Mrs. M. “We want to keep them in our thoughts and prayers throughout the year as we do fundraising events so we can provide for them throughout the holidays that are coming up and throughout the year as it will take a long time for them to recover.”

Within a week of Space Coast’s adoption of Sugarloaf School, donations had piled in and a truckload containing nine pallets of food, clothing, and other supplies was on the way down to Sugarloaf Key.  Arriving with the shipment was a banner signed by Space Coast students, teachers, and staff.

(From left) Feeder school Enterprise Elementary School Principal, Mrs. Jean Barleson, Space Coast Jr./Sr. High School Principal, Mrs. Sylvia Mijuskovic, and other Space Coast staff share their love and support for Sugarloaf School prior to loading up a shipment of donations.

Reflecting on firsthand experiences, Mrs. M understands recovery goes beyond replacing physical loses. “Participating in this project makes me remember a time in 1992 after living through Hurricane Andrew and realizing that there’s a lot more to the recovery efforts of a hurricane than just materialistic things. It is important to reach out to people for emotional support, as well. This is why aside from the collection of goods, we have begun a penpal campaign that I am hopeful will take off with a lot of popularity.”

While candles and flashlights can temporarily shine light into darkness, the friendships and unity at the heart of the collective efforts of Sugarloaf and Space Coast to lift up people in need have meaningfully brightened the spirits of those experiencing it.

“I am proud of the interest that our community has shown in this campaign,” said Mrs. M. “It will help our Vipers become even better citizens and even better all-around individuals than they already are!”

Mr. Russell beams with gratitude when he reflects on the massive showing of support that has come from sources all over the country. “Every day is a new day, and it gets better with each day.”

From this tale of two schools comes an unforgettable and uplifting lesson: Hurricanes are rightly feared but friendships are far more formidable.

Donations of gift cards to Publix or Home Depot are being requested of Space Coast families and businesses, and other interested communities. Please contact Mrs. Keri Weeks at 321-638-0750 to contribute to Space Coast’s next donation. To reach out directly to Sugarloaf School, contact Ms. Maria Allen at 305-745-3282. Thank you for your consideration.