Librarians Help Schools Emerge from the Ashes

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By Steve Zalusky and Jennifer Habley

School Library Aide Vera Beal watched as fire poured out of her library at James Monroe Elementary in Edison, N.J. It was a Saturday in March, 2014, so fortunately no one was hurt. Still, she said, “I watched in dismay and fright as the flames rolled out of the windows of our school library,” she said. “The entire collection of books as well as all of our media equipment was destroyed. All of these wonderful amenities of the school year have been erased due to the fire.”

But the fire, devastating as it was, could not melt the indomitable spirit of the school, which is home to 486 students in grades Kindergarten through 5th - nor could the flames quench the determination of its librarian, whose life was intimately entwined with that school. Beal lives only a couple of blocks away from the school. Her children attended the school. She had served as its PTA president. And, prior to becoming the librarian, she was a substitute teacher there.

“I love all the people that I work with. It’s a really special, close knit – like a family. The memories of that fateful night are vivid. “It was very tough.” When the fire broke out, it started a chain reaction among members of the community, with phones buzzing and the texts flying furiously. The scene was heart wrenching. People were hugging each other and crying. "You see the place that you love just burning up," she said. What made it especially painful was the fact that the library had recently been renovated - it had received new furniture, new monitors and 30 desktop computers.

After the fire, students and faculty were temporarily relocated to two adjacent buildings and trailers at a local college two miles away from the school site.

"The one thing that our principal demanded from the board of education was that we all stay together," Beal said. "She didn't want the kids split up. She didn't want the teachers split up. So they worked hard all weekend and found us two empty buildings at a local college. The buildings were going to be demolished, and they were able to paint, furnish and move us in. By Wednesday, we were all there. So we only lost two days. It was remarkable how the whole community pulled together to get us up and running."

Later, they were relocated again to another temporary facility, this time to a vacated parochial school five miles away.

Through the crisis, Beal revived the library.

“I was there every day, doing what I could to help out. We had two 12'x12' rooms at another elementary school that were filled with donations, which I personally had to weed through to make sure we had some appropriate stuff there.”

She was helped in her efforts when the library was one of two recipients of  2015 catastrophic disaster relief grants offered by the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA) as part of its Beyond Words Grant program funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Since 2012, two catastrophic grants are awarded yearly to schools that suffered a 90 percent or greater loss to the school library program due to a natural disaster, fire or an act recognized by the federal government as terrorism. Through the grant, she said, “I was able to purchase loads of books for the library, from a complete set of presidential biographies to the newest fiction that’s out there that the kids like.”

Since 2006, the Beyond Words grant program has provided relief to public school libraries nationwide that have suffered materials losses because of a major disaster ranging from hurricanes, tornados, flood, earthquakes, fires or an act of terrorism. To date, more than $1.6 million in grants have been awarded to over 150 schools across the country.  Funds replaced or supplemented books, media and/or library equipment within the school library or offset costs incurred by those schools opening their doors to significant numbers of new students displaced by the disaster. Applications are accepted on an ongoing basis.

As Beal looks forward to moving back into a beautiful new library that will be part of a school scheduled to be finished in 2016, she looked back upon her work in restoring the school library to its cherished position within the school community.

“I was so proud and happy that I was able to contribute to the welfare of the students, because they absolutely love library time.” She was especially pleased that the elementary students “just love books.  “So the fact that I was able to give something back to the community made me so proud,” she said.

In addition to James Monroe, Old Dock Elementary School in Whiteville, N.C. also received a Beyond Words grant.

Early on the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, Old Dock Elementary School staff watched as fire fighters battled a blaze that would consume one of the main buildings of the school.

“There was nothing that could be salvaged from the ashes,” said school Librarian Brandy Lee. “Furniture, equipment, and of course books did not survive the fire. Along with the school library, three classes of 1st and 2nd graders (80 students) lost their classroom, as well as a computer lab, our office, 4 resource rooms, supply closet, and our auditorium. The school library will remain in the foyer of the gym until another is built.”
Despite the fire, students did not miss a day of school. Classes were combined and housed in other buildings as well as modular classrooms. From her makeshift library in the gym foyer, Lee remains committed to the school’s rich history of academic success.

“I will visit classrooms and share my love of reading as well as donated books,” said Lee. “We reside in an area that is socio-economically challenged and 85 percent of our students fall in the category of free and reduced lunch. Something as simple as a book will provide our students with years of experiences and enjoyment that they may otherwise not have.”

"Elementary schools are often the hub of the community and libraries are the hub of the school," said Terri Grief, AASL past president when the grants were awarded. "When schools are tragically destroyed, the entire community is impacted. What a scary time for the children at Old Dock and James Monroe schools! The safe and secure place they relied on was gone overnight. The teachers, administrators and parents immediately banded together and sought solutions. Luckily for the school librarians and the students, the Dollar General literacy Foundation responded as well. The libraries will be able to replace materials that the kids need to succeed in their academic careers. AASL is so appreciative of Dollar General Beyond Words grant program. These funds directly impact children and communities and helps with the healing process after a catastrophe.".

James Monroe Elementary in Edison, N.J. showing damage from fire.
Library aide Vera Beal.
Firefighters working to supress a fire at Old Dock Elementary School in Whiteville, N.C.