Soggy schools determined to meet challenges of flood

By Kim Krull

No classes have met at St. John Lutheran School in New Orleans since September, but Principal Bethany Gonski never has been busier.
 
Instead of teaching students and leading faculty, Gonski scurries to find funding for new flooring, hurricane schoolsdoors, and heating and cooling units so the school can reopen this fall for at least pre-kindergarten through first-grade classes.

“In the beginning, we knew it was going to be hard, but we said we would manage,” said Gonski, whose school sat in nearly three feet of floodwater for weeks after Hurricane Katrina.  “Now, more than six months later, we may be a lot more tired and stressed, but we are still determined to keep moving forward.”

St. John is one of 21 LCMS schools affected by the most devastating U.S. hurricane season on record.  Two of those schools — St. John and Prince of Peace Lutheran School, also in New Orleans — remain closed.  Many others continue to struggle with post-hurricane challenges.

Hardest hit are the schools in New Orleans.  That city’s population loss means diminished membership and financial support for congregations and their schools.  LCMS teachers who remain in the city tackle their own hurricane-related housing and insurance problems at the same time they are asked to help get their schools back up and running. 

“Our teachers are spread very thin, and the stress level is very high,” said Gene Menzel, executive assistant of parish services for the LCMS Southern District, where Katrina disrupted the operation of 12 Lutheran schools-eight elementary, three early childhood centers, and one high school.

But despite these challenges, these schools “are shining lights that can reach out to families with God’s love,” said Dennis Fangmann, school liaison with LCMS World Relief/Human Care.  “We need to pray for our schools and our teachers and support them however we can.”

One way is through the “Reaching Out in Love-Hurricane Relief” fund-raising campaign coordinated by LCMS World Relief/Human Care and LCMS School Ministry.   By late March, $52,658 had been collected through the sale of purple-and-yellow-swirl wristbands to assist affected schools.

The goal is to raise $250,000-a figure that reflects the approximate 250,000 total enrollment in LCMS preschools through high schools, the largest Protestant school system in the U.S.

As this academic year winds down, campaign organizers urge Sunday school and vacation Bible school classes to support the hurricane relief fund-raising effort by ordering the wristbands in bulk to either give away or sell.  For a downloadable order form or to learn more, contact LCMS World Relief/Human Care at http://worldrelief.lcms.org or call 1-800-248-1930, Ext. 1380 or 1381.

A sampling of hurricane-related challenges faced by LCMS schools include:

  • As much as $100,000 in rebuilding costs at St. John, New Orleans.  The school, which had a pre-Katrina enrollment of 155, lacked flood insurance and now must be self-supporting as its home congregation struggles with its own repair costs and a dramatically reduced membership.

  • The uncertain future of Prince of Peace Lutheran School, New Orleans, which sits gutted in a largely abandoned neighborhood.  “Both the church and school are dealing with devastation and the displacement of people and trying to determine the best way to continue to be the great connecting force to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ under these new circumstances,” Menzel said.

  • Tuition assistance for families who can no longer afford to send their children to LCMS schools because of home and/or job losses.

  • Salary support for affected schools that have no money for raises but whose faculty members need increased income.  “Everything is getting more expensive for these teachers, but our schools and congregations are in no position to give raises,” Menzel said.  “For our younger teachers, apartment rents are going up.  For our teachers nearing retirement, they need to keep up their income in what is supposed to be their best-earning years.”

  • Hurricane support kits, which Southern District schools plan to send home with students as this academic year ends and the next hurricane season begins.  “This will be an anxious time for our students and their families, and we want to give them devotions and other coping tools they can hold on to,” Menzel said.

LCMS School Ministry Director Bill Cochran urged LCMS members to send notes of encouragement and thank-you gifts like gift cards to teachers in hurricane-impacted schools.  Retired teachers are encouraged to volunteer to teach classes (especially “specialty” classes like art and music) to give hurricane-weary teachers a breather, yet this year or next fall.

For opportunities to offer financial support to hurricane-affected LCMS schools, click here.  For information about volunteer needs and opportunities, click here.

Posted March 29, 2006

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