“Love in a Box” Reaches School Children in Louisiana
by Joan R. Simon
(March 16, 2006) Love in a Box 2006, a program at Central, Murray and Mamaroneck Avenue elementary schools, reached its culmination on Feb. 13 th when organizers Cari O’Leary and Linda Ryan arrived at the Louisiana schools where the 1,177 “gorgeous gifts of kindness” were opened by children displaced by Hurricanes Katrina (see: “Love in a Box” Travels from Larchmont to Louisiana). For many weeks, Mamaroneck elementary students had been decorating and filling these special boxes with useful supplies, as part of “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” and Collins Brothers of Larchmont transported the boxes to Louisiana.
The highlight of the trip came when Ms. Ryan and Ms. O’Leary were able to watch as the boxes were distributed at the schools outside of New Orleans. The first stop was Abney Elementary in Slidell, located on the eastern side of Lake Pontchartrain. “As the boxes were opened, we observed smiles,” Ms. O’Leary said. There were “shouts of ‘this is what I always wanted!,’ ‘did Santa come?’ and ‘hey, there’s a letter in mine – and a picture!!’” Ms. Ryan added, “There were smiles, laughter and an abundance of bittersweet tears. We are not sure who did more of the crying – probably us!”
The women reported that the Abney school had been “under water” and repairs are still ongoing. Many of the classes are being conducted in trailers and over half of the faculty at Abney is also living in trailers or with friends and relatives. The elementary school, with 300 students, is sharing its facility with the middle school, which was taken over by the high school after it was destroyed in the hurricane. Streets are lined with debris and families are living in their front yards while attempting to make repairs to their damaged homes.
Ms. Ryan and Ms. O’Leary described their second stop, Scotlandville Elementary School near the Baton Rouge airport, as a rundown facility re-opened specifically to accommodate the displaced children living in the area. It has less than adequate resources, with students and teachers leaving on a weekly basis to return to New Orleans. As expected, many of the children are haunted by memories of the hurricane aftermath and bear psychological scarring from their experiences. The principal relayed several heartbreaking stories, including one about a young boy who found the air mattress his father had been floating on – punctured from below. The boy knows his father did not swim and believes that he has drowned. Another 8-year-old told of seeing a playmate floating face down in the water. All of the children ask, “When can I go home to my own bed?”
The two women also toured New Orleans during their visit and were overwhelmed by what they saw there. “We witnessed sheer ‘ghost towns’ – empty shells of homes without people, pets, electricity or grass. There was garbage strewn about and everything appeared gray in color. Even the trees were dying,” they recounted.
Ms. O’Leary and Ms. Ryan are sharing their Louisiana experience with the Mamaroneck elementary schools involved. They plan to present slide shows for groups of students, faculty and parents at the schools. “The project really did bring smiles to the faces of the children,” they said.