After Hurricane Maria Hit, We Helped One School Fight Back

Hurricane Maria was the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, with winds reaching almost 200 miles per hour amid torrential rains and flooding. The disaster left millions of people without power, hundreds of thousands without access to basic necessities and 10,000 people homeless. The world watched with concern and compassion.

But when School Superintendent Jim McKay and Single Path’s Bill Spakowski saw the news, they decided to make a difference.

As superintendent for School District 117 in Antioch, Illinois, Jim McKay had helped send supplies to Houston after Hurricane Harvey. But he knew, this time, supplies were not enough. He needed to do more.

Jim knew the devastation would impact families and children most, and he also understood the vital role schools play in a community. “My mind is with kids,” said Jim McKay. “It’s with helping. When I heard kids in Puerto Rico were not being served, and maybe not being able to attend school for months, I knew I had to do something.” Jim reached out to other area school districts and business and community leaders. Jim had worked with Single Path to set up his own district’s 1:1 learning environment just a few months earlier, so Bill Spakowski of Single Path was near the top of his list of people to call. As Jim suspected, Bill jumped at the chance to help.

Puerto Rico already had considerable education challenges. An estimated 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s students receive specialized education, twice the average on the U.S. mainland. According to the New York Times, only 10 percent of seventh, eighth and 11th graders achieved proficiency in a standardized math test in 2017. Escuela Rafael de Jesús, an elementary school in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, was faced with similar challenges, even before the hurricane. This district serves 300-400 students of mostly low-income families (86% of them receive a free or reduced lunch) and a great number of special needs kids. They didn’t have the funds to recover from the hurricane on their own, at least not without a miracle. Jim, Bill and the group they named “Relief Through Leadership” became the school’s angels.

The amount of money and equipment Relief Through Leadership raised was impressive, and reflects the environment of caring and giving that both Jim and Bill advocate in their respective organizations.

Donated supplies and technical assistance from Single Path were married by similar efforts from other organizations. The group solicited no tax dollars. Volunteers who went to Puerto Rico paid for the trip out of their own pockets. And the amount of donations, work, and organization, was staggering. For example, local schools donated desktops and notebooks. CDN logistics trucked four pallets of computers from Lake Villa, Illinois to Miami. Carnival Cruise Line shipped those pallets to San Juan. The Mayor’s Office delivered the equipment to the school. And everything was donated. “We were one of the few volunteer groups that were able to crack the sea-transport challenge,” admits Jim McKay.

Jim, and his group of volunteers, which included two people from Single Path and eight school superintendents, flew down to Puerto Rico and got to work. Bill and his colleague not only helped set up two hundred computers, including desktop classroom computers and Chrome Books, but they joined the team spending time (and sweat) scraping paint from ceiling and walls and repainting the school building with paint purchased by Single Path.

Before the hurricane, their school library only had two computers. Now, Rafael de Jesús has its own computer lab. Said Jim McKay, “These computers changed their world. Literally.” He added, “In the world of education, the opportunities are significantly less if you don’t have access to the Internet. With technology, kids today are able to learn and grow so much faster. And we were able to go in and give them the chance to learn and grow in way they couldn’t have before.”

Jim McKay remembers how surprised the mayor, local leaders and the school’s staff were when he and his group arrived in Puerto Rico. “Honestly, when I talked to their principal back in February I don’t think she believed me,” he said. “Talk is cheap. But when we showed up she, and other faculty members, were nearly overcome with emotion.”

Neither Jim nor Bill feel their job is done. Today, Puerto Rico is still impacted by the lingering effects of Maria. While travelling through the island, Bill noticed the blue tarps still covering the roofs of many homes, and the debris of destroyed or damaged buildings that may never be replaced or restored. More than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s schools have closed since the storm and many were without electricity for months. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the island permanently, including many doctors and educators. Much of the relief the island has received, including a significant percentage of its educational funding, has been lost to waste, corruption and questionable spending practices. That’s why Relief Though Leadership plans to continue donating directly to the school, visiting annually, providing equipment and even new classroom furniture. Both Jim and Bill feel that acquiring and donating two thousand computers a year is a realistic goal. They also hope to set up a connected learning environment between local Illinois schools and Escuela Rafael de Jesús.

The time and energy provided by Relief Through Leadership is about more than making a difference today. It’s about the kids who will be the future of Puerto Rico. Said Bill Spakowski, “It’s about giving back and helping to develop the next generation of leaders. We’re a company that cares about making a difference, and truly cares about students.”

You can view a video showing some of the before and after images of Puerto Rico and Escuela Rafael de Jesús, and the relief efforts by Relief Through Leadership here. To learn more about Single Path, contact us.

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