When it rampaged through Panama City on Oct. 10, Hurricane Michael destroyed Springfield Elementary School along its path of devastation. Although none of the school’s more than 450 students and staff were among the 15 Bay County, Florida, residents killed by the storm, the majority of them were among the thousands with homes left uninhabitable.
Three months later, from about 200 miles away in Columbus, a Muscogee County School District teacher and his students are showing the survivors aren’t forgotten — by helping in ways that teach lessons beyond textbooks.
Led by Double Churches Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Eric Crouch, their efforts have amounted to a $700,000 contribution of classroom supplies for Bay District Schools from the teacher resources company ETA Hand2Mind, based in Vernon Hills, Illinois, plus more than $10,000 from individuals for Bay County educational projects posted on DonorsChoose.org and around $3,500 in other online donations through Facebook and GoFundMe.
“On Day 26, we were at $3,000; on Day 27, we were at $703,000,” said Crouch, one of two U.S. teachers among the 50 international finalists for the 2019 Global Teacher Prize of $1 million. “You can’t give up. You can’t give up. You never know. If you stop shooting your shot, you never make it.”
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It all started a month after the hurricane. A Bay County teacher emailed a request for help from her fellow members of Teach Your Heart Out, which is a conference providing “rigorous, meaningful, research-based strategies, all while inspiring and rejuvenating educators,” according to its website.
Crouch is conference’s director of partnerships. Instead of the conference making its own donation, Crouch said, the nonprofit organization spent $7,000 for Jonathan Giles of Columbus-based marketing agency Incolr to boost the campaign.
On Nov. 18, they visited Springfield Elementary, where they filmed a video of principal Ilea Faircloth showing the ruins of the school, whose students all qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
“Unless you witness it yourself,” Faircloth said, “it doesn’t sink in.”
The damage was so extensive, the students and staff were transferred to another school in the county. Some are in portable classrooms.
One of Crouch’s former students, Double Churches Middle School sixth-grader Luke Norsworthy and his father, Jim, accompanied Crouch on his trip to Panama City.
Luke described the damage he saw.
“It was really, really bad,” Luke said. “It’s hard for me to explain because I don’t know how it ever feels for my school to be torn to pieces and walls being just thrown. But it was just breathtaking. It was scary, kind of.”
He certainly explained it well enough when he spoke to Crouch’s current fifth-graders, motivating their participation in this project.
Luke appreciates the power of project-based learning. Last school year in Crouch’s class, he his classmates made Christmas ornaments with 3D printers and sold them to raise money to help save an impoverished school from closing in Africa.
“If you’re actually doing it . . . and you’re making stuff, it kind of sticks into your brain,” Luke said.
Tony Maniccia, 10, had a powerful reaction to watching the video of what happened to the Springfield students’ school.
“I just saw everything they didn’t have and noticed everything we did have,” he said, “and I just thought it wasn’t fair that they just didn’t have it. It was just gone for them. So that made me want to give back to them.”
Another student in Crouch’s class, Becca Lee, 11, recalled the impact Luke’s testimony made on her understanding of the need in Bay County and her enthusiasm for this project.
“It made me want to work on it because of the Golden Rule, treat others the way you want to be treated,” she said. “Because, like if that was my school, I would want somebody to help me and my school. … If we don’t do it, there might not be somebody that will do it.”
Crouch emphasized, “The video says one thing, but to listen to somebody else who’s your age who’s been a part of a project like this helps them understand that perspective.”
He posted the video online, which generated more than 55,000 views and hundreds of shares and enabled them to raise more than $3,000 through Facebook, the Teach Your Heart Out website and a GoFundMe page. Crouch also took at least 10 minutes each day to solicit education organizations for their support.
Then on Dec. 24, he received a “mind-blowing” Christmas gift: An email from Hand2Mind telling him about the $700,000 worth of classroom supplies the company would donate.
“It’s an incredible number,” Crouch said. “It’s an incredible advantage for these students who have been put at a significant disadvantage.”
And this project continues. Crouch’s students will have Skype sessions with students in Bay County schools to find out other needs they can fill. Crouch’s students also will Skype with students at schools wanting to collaborate on other ways to help Bay County.
“It’s really important that we empower the learners and not just come in as some sort of savior,” Crouch said. “You’ve got to bring people along with you. We have a great responsibility to teach empathy. It’s so important that we don’t miss on that, because they’re going to be inheriting a world with some problems, and we want them to think about problems that are beyond just the problems that they face.”
Another way Crouch’s students are helping is by using their classroom’s five 3D printers to make key chains. Nardi Routten’s fourth-graders at Chester A. Moore Elementary School in Fort Pierce, Florida, will sell them to raise money for Patronis Elementary School’s PTA in Bay County. The key chains are in the shape of Florida and emblazoned with “hope” and “love” and a heart symbol. Other students in Crouch’s class are working on a public relations campaign to spread the project’s message.
This project has spawned TYHO Cares, which sets aside a portion of each registration fee to help teachers in need, Crouch said.
“Teachers will rally behind other teachers,” he said, “because we know what we go through on a daily basis.”
Bay County schools started re-opening a month after the storm, but as a principal on special assignment now, Faircloth is tasked with tracking down the 11 percent of the district’s students who still haven’t returned. She also is helping secure reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Meanwhile, the donations sparked by Couch have made an immediately positive impact — even before the classroom supplies were delivered.
“As an educator, I think you feel a certain connection with the teaching profession as a whole,” Faircloth said. “So when someone who walks in your shoes shows you that they understand, it’s just what teachers are all about. … To know somebody outside our state is taking an interest, knowing they are trying to help our teachers build back their classrooms, it says a lot.”
Faircloth, a 14-year educator, was in her first year as a principal when Hurricane Michael left her school inoperable. But she focuses on what has happened since the storm, uplifted by her community coming together and the outpouring of support from others.
“It’s the most proud position I’ve had in my life,” she said. “I truly feel like God put me there for a reason. ... We came out the other side OK, and my kids and my staff will be stronger and more resilient for it.”
HOW TO HELP
The following websites will enable you to help Bay County, Florida, schools recover from the damage left by Hurricane Michael:
Buy a key chain through the Campaign for Students at Patronis Elementary School on GoFundMe..com.
Larger donations and other help can be offered by emailing TeachYourHeartOutCon@gmail.com.
Local teachers can get involved by emailing Crouch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.