This piece is one in a multi-part series about the Westfield School District coming to the aid of Superstorm Sandy victims.
Unbeknownst to McKinley Elementary School Principal Marc Biunno and fourth grade teacher Joseph Paradise, their parents live just a block from each in Pt. Pleasant.
It wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy devastated the beach community that the two made the connection while trying to help their families recover in the aftermath of the storm.
“Here I am cleaning out the garage and my principal shows up to help,” Paradise laughed, recalling how Biunno offered assistance to residents in their parents’ neighborhood.
Having witnessed the destruction firsthand and recognizing the wide-ranging needs of those left in the wake of Sandy, Biunno and Paradise returned to McKinley inspired to help.
“When we got back to school, the first thing we thought was ‘What can we do? How can we help? There are so many people in need,’” Paradise said.
Biunno was not surprised by the immediate outpouring of support from within the school community. The principal said a parent emailed him and mentioned she had a contact at a Lavalette school and explained what those displaced needed. Biunno then brought that information to the PTO, who in turn put out a call for help to parents. Within a week, Biunno said, more than $1,500 worth of gift certificates had been donated. To date that total is closer to $2,000.
"What I've learned being at McKinley for four months is that something happens and people say, ‘What do you need?’" said Biunno, who took on the role of principal in late August 2012. "The story here is that McKinley is this family and I'm just getting to know it but Mr. Paradise has been part of it for 14 years.
“This happened and the McKinley community, with the help and leadership of Joe, said ‘How can we make the McKinley community larger?’ Those students got in that classroom and they said ‘What can we do?’"
Through the school's ‘Buddy Program,’ in which third graders partner with first graders, the idea for a food drive was born and the students collected enough canned goods to fill Paradise’s SUV to the roof with donations, which he gladly delivered.
“They were so happy to have it,” Paradise said. “They said, ‘Please let us know who you represent,’ and I proudly said, ‘Westfield, and everyone of these items came from the students.’”
Social Media Helps Assess Changing Needs
Since students and staff returned to McKinley following Sandy, Paradise has served as “the hub” for the school’s grassroots effort to make a difference, Biunno noted.
By using his social media connections, Paradise has been able to continually share the generosity of those looking to help.
“Through social media I found people who are homeless who need clothing to get back to work. I started putting the word out there and a couple of parents brought in racks and before I knew it, we had a lot of really nice clothing,” Paradise said.
As an homage to the shore, the teacher asked anyone who donated clothing to also bring in a picture of themselves and their family at their favorite shore spot. A wall of photos is displayed near the makeshift boutique.
Paradise shared that all the clothing donated will be delivered to the Eagleswood School District in West Creek, part of Long Beach Island’s Beach Haven area.
“Many displaced people will have clothing to get back to work,” Paradise said.
McKinley Helps Rebuild
Continuing his outreach mission, Paradise has been working with Cole Porter, a volunteer firefighter in Union Beach, who said that as the rebuilding efforts commence, help is badly needed.
"People are fed now, but need to rebuild everywhere,” Paradise said. “What do they need? Insulation, drywall, 2x4's, building materials, flooring, electric, hot water heaters, et cetera, et cetera.
“I suggested people give me gift cards for Home Depot and Lowes so I could deliver to people in need. He (Porter) thought that was brilliant and wants to work with me on that. Anyone who wants to help can send me gift cards to Home Depot and I'll deliver it down the shore to people trying to rebuild in Union Beach, and all shore points south.”
Knit Together by Westfield
While it might seem unusual for children in Arizona to be knitting scarves and blankets, that’s exactly what Debra Barnes’ third grade class in Tucson did.
Barnes said after seeing images of the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, her class wanted to do something for other third graders.
“New Jersey has a special place in my heart,” Barnes wrote in an email to the Westfield School District. “My dad grew up in Westfield and I spent time in Sea Girt with my grandpa many years ago.”
Westfield schools spokesperson Lorre Korecky was able to connect Barnes with Paradise, who has been in touch with a community leader who services the Bay Shore communities of Keyport, Union Beach, Keansburg, and Cliffwood Beach.
“These are towns that were hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. They are going to use your scarves and blankets as Stocking Stuffers for a Secret Santa drive for kids affected by Hurricane Sandy. I think this is a perfect fit for your project,” Paradise told Barnes.
Along with the blankets, children in Arizona have included notes of friendship and encouragement for the Jersey Shore students.
Giving Back to Westfield
McKinley students were also part of the district-wide elementary school effort to contribute to the Westfield United Fund. Wilson Elementary School Principal Joseph Malanga presented a $4,000 donation to the Westfield United Hurricane Sandy Westfield Relief Fund on behalf of Westfield’s elementary schools.
“We made a contribution to keep our support close to home as well,” Biunno said.
While it seems like Paradise, a Jersey Shore resident, has undertaken a monumental task, the teacher is happy to continue the effort as long as it is needed.
“We're so fortunate not to have our lives upside down, it's the least we can do," he said.