Disaster Relief at AdoptAClassroom.org: Fast and Targeted; Flexible and Accountable

Written by AdoptAClassroom.org Executive Director, Ann Pifer

Over the past year, AdoptAClassroom.org has become more active in disaster relief for classrooms around the country, and we have learned that this is something we do exceptionally well. Why? Because of our ability to be fast and targeted, flexible and accountable in responding to disasters affecting schools.

When three major hurricanes hit the U.S. in 2017, we learned that our ability to react with speed in fundraising – providing donors with an immediate way to contribute – combined with our deliberate approach to evaluating need among our nationwide network of teachers and distributing funds in a targeted manner to where they are needed most, and then enabling teachers to spend those funds on the supplies that they choose, put us in a unique position to ensure that donations are used in the best possible way.

Because no cash changes hands in our system – teachers’ funds are held in their virtual accounts with AdoptAClassroom.org, and are then spent through our proprietary ecommerce marketplace of educational product vendors – we know what every dollar is spent on, and that those dollars are only spent on supplies for the classroom. With AdoptAClassroom.org, teachers get the flexibility to choose exactly what they need most, when they need it, and donors have the confidence of knowing that their contributions get directly into classrooms in need.

Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria – Unique Challenges, Unique Approach

Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico presented a unique challenge for us in providing disaster relief for classrooms because power and communication networks were disrupted for an extended period of time on the island, making it difficult for us to contact schools and teachers to evaluate needs. Many schools were closed for the remainder of the school year. It was not clear until the start of school in the Fall of 2018 which schools would re-open nor which teachers would have jobs and therefore be in need of classroom supplies.

So, we waited. After schools reopened, we went in person to visit schools, to talk to teachers, students, principals and school administrators. It was an invaluable experience for us to learn not only about Puerto Rico and its schools, but also about the long-lasting impact that a disaster like this can have. What follows are some observations from our visit to one of these schools, Escuela Sor Isolina Ferre in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Director of Escuela Sor Isolina Ferre, Michelette Quinones Lopez, describing the impact of Hurricane Maria on her school.

The Director of Escuela Sor Isolina Ferre, Michelette Quinones Lopez, became emotional when asked about the hurricane and what it meant for her school. She said, “For us, life is now divided into two – what was before Maria, and what it is after Maria – everything is changed.” Like many schools in Puerto Rico, the low-slung building wraps around a central courtyard. “This used to be like a forest – for the children, it was magical – lush, green, and shady,” said teacher William Toledo-Perez. Almost all of the trees, including a massive one that stood in the center of the space, were mowed down by Maria.

Even though schools have been rebuilding from Hurricane Maria for over a year, some things like damage to trees and outdoor spaces cannot be easily replaced.

The storm also destroyed all of the air conditioning units on the roof of the building, the smashed remains of which are still visible. One year later, there is still no AC in the classrooms. “When temperatures in the classrooms gets to 100 to 110 degrees in the middle of the day, it is hard for both teachers and students,” said Toledo. “Also, the few computers that we have for students to use in the library cannot be used because the high humidity will cause corrosion that will wreck them. Until we can get AC back, at least in the library, the students don’t have any computers to use.”

One year after Hurricane Maria, there is still no air conditioning in the classrooms.

With the support of our corporate partner, OOLY, we were able not only to adopt all of the teachers at Sor Isolina Ferre, but also provide some fun and colorful OOLY supplies to all of the students in the school. We were overwhelmed by the gratitude of the teachers and students for this support, but also by the tremendous optimism, determination, and joy that we saw in everyone at Sor Isolina Ferre. 

OOLY joined us to adopt all of the teachers at Sor Isolina Ferre and provide some fun and colorful OOLY supplies to all of the students in the school.

Teachers at Sor Isolina Ferre lost all or most of the classroom supplies that they had purchased over the years. “Teachers here spend so much of their own money so that students can have the things they need to learn,” said Toledo. “I spend about $1,000 of my own money every year. When a teacher here retires, it is common for them to give their classroom supplies to other teachers to help them out. One year later, none of us have been able to replace what we lost in Maria. That is why the support from AdoptAClassroom.org is SO exciting for the teachers here – it will make a really big difference for us and for our students.” 

The Hurricane Maria Fund will help teachers at Sor Isolina Ferre begin to replace the years’ worth of classroom supplies they lost.

Before we left the school, I asked my colleague to snap a photo of me with what is left of this tree that was mowed down by Hurricane Maria in the courtyard of the school. All that was left after the cleanup one year ago was this stump, but it just keeps growing back. It is a living metaphor for the resilience of the Puerto Rican people who, when asked about their recovery from Maria, almost invariably say “Nos levantamos!” Literally, that means “we get up”, but to me has the meaning “we pull ourselves back up.” We left inspired by the people we met, and grateful for donors like you who enabled us to make a difference here. 

Ann Pifer with a tree still standing in a school courtyard after Hurricane Maria.

Thank you to every donor who generously gave to one of our Disaster Relief Funds. Your donations make a huge difference to those teachers and students who need it most.

Click here to learn more about our current Disaster Relief campaigns, including California Wildfires and Hurricane Michael.