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#UCPSGivesBack: Hurricane Florence book drive connects Shiloh Elementary and eastern North Carolina students

Hurricane Florence book drive connects Shiloh Elementary and eastern North Carolina students Several months ago, Shiloh Elementary teacher Mary Highsmith was scrolling through a North Carolina teachers Facebook group when a few comments caught her eye. Hurricane Florence had already pummeled much of North Carolina’s east coast, and teachers, still reeling from the widespread devastation to their homes and schools, were posting pictures of their bare classrooms.
“There were pictures of media centers and classrooms that were completely bare because all of the books had been damaged. Many children in that area, particularly in the Burgaw area, lost everything in their homes,” she said. “A teacher wrote, ‘It feels like we’ve already been forgotten.’ That just broke my heart.”

Mary immediately thought of a Points of Light grant she’d received during the summer. As part of the grant, Shiloh Elementary would host a community event where children would not only receive books but also donate new or gently used books to other children in need.

The beneficiary of their book drive was a great organization that regularly collects and distributes donated children’s books, Mary said, but she decided to notify the grant organization that there would be a change of plans.

Through the NC Department of Public Instruction’s Florence Aid to Student and Teachers (FAST) donation drive, the books that Shiloh Elementary collected would be sent to hurricane-affected schools in the eastern part of the state instead.

To bolster the book drive, Shiloh Elementary staff decided to create a book drive competition between grade levels before the Read-a-Palooza community event.

After a week of stiff competition, teachers, parents and students, community members and community organizations donated more than 3,000 books, a number that far exceeded the 300 or so books that Mary assumed they would collect.

But the students didn’t stop there. They went a step further and decorated handmade cards complete with well wishes and encouraging messages for students affected by the hurricane.

It was an outpouring of support and spirit of service that spilled over to the Read-a-Palooza, which was held in November.

Entire families showed up to volunteer for the event, leaving them with three times the number of volunteers than they initially anticipated. During the Read-a-Palooza, children received books, made puppets and bookmarks, read to therapy dogs and participated in read-aloud stations with teachers and local politicians. And, of course, they also donated even more books and made additional cards for eastern North Carolina students.

At the end of the day, books and school supplies that weren’t handed out to attendees were also donated to the book drive.

Reflecting on the past several months, Mary said she originally intended for the Read-a-Palooza to just be a way to celebrate literacy and encourage families to serve together and give back. Hurricane Florence, she added, wasn’t even a blip on their radar when she wrote the grant.

“If you ever doubt that we have a school with real heart, just go read those notes from our children or look at the outpouring of people who donated to the book drive,” she said. “Our students really get that children in those communities have lost a lot, and they also understand the value of books and literacy. The hurricane didn’t even exist when we wrote the grant in July. But at the end of the day, it all worked out.”

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