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On the Same Page

A year after Hurricane Katrina washed through public schools on the Gulf Coast, the NEA Foundation returns to restock library shelves.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Even a splash of water will ruin a sheet of paper. And lots of water—we’re talking about Biblical levels of rain and sea, mixed with every kind of garbage, rising to rooflines—will ruin lots of paper, including almost every good book in the public school libraries of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.

That’s a call for help that NEA President Reg Weaver and NEA Foundation President Harriet Sanford simply couldn’t ignore. “A good library is a vital resource for every great public school,” Weaver said. “Bringing books back to these schools and these students who have lost so much is a top priority for NEA.”

This fall, Weaver and Sanford flew south from Washington, D.C., with $340,000 in cash grants from the NEA Foundation to help rebuild public school libraries in four Gulf Coast school districts. Although Hurricane Katrina made its disastrous visit more than a year ago, schools still struggle to return to normal—many students and school employees continue to live in FEMA trailers and go to school in portable classrooms. Among their many problems are empty library shelves.

“What we hear from superintendents and other leadership is that they have very few resources for restocking libraries,” Sanford said. Unlike other boxed-up donations that libraries may have received, the Foundation—largely through a contribution from the McCormick Tribune Foundation—is providing cash that librarians can use to buy age-appropriate, nonfiction books to sustain curriculum and support instructional needs. Local leaders also can choose to buy media technology.

 The NEA Foundation Katrina Grants are part of a series of efforts by NEA and its memberstohelp their stricken Gulf Coast colleagues, as well as students and public schools. First, the NEA Disaster Relief Fund raised more than $1.5 million, sent directly to public school employees to pay for food, clothing, and new roofs over their heads. Then, NEA’s Adopt-a-School program matched 223 schools with donors for supplies, books, and equipment, while NEA’s Read Across America delivered books and $1,000 cash grants to 40 schools in its “Gulf Coast Reading Relief Tour.” (More information on relief efforts can be found at disasterrelief or www.

The devastation remains striking, Sanford said. “It takes your breath away.” But, she added, so do the efforts made by teachers to provide stability for their children. “What we saw were teachers, administrators, and other public school educators who all joined forces to ensure that students had a place to return to—they realized that kids need stability, and libraries became a key part of that….The teachers are resilient. The kids are resilient. They’re proud people and they want to go back to normal. In many ways, our money allows them to do that.”

For Weaver, it was his fourth humanitarian trip to the suffering region. He has previously distributed other NEA money and books, as well as his characteristic message of hope, resilience, and unity.

“I will never forget what I have seen, or what these brave people have told me,” he said shortly after his first visit to the devastated region. “I will carry their stories with me.”

Photos top: Crystal Logiudice; bottom: Thigpen Photography

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