This post is by Henry Jones, a senior at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine. In 2014, his class documented the effects of climate change on Hurricane Sandy victims in Red Hook, New York. A short video of the learning expedition that led to this project can be viewed here.
Last spring, my class of 90 high school juniors from Casco Bay High School boarded two buses and headed from our school in Portland, Maine, to the Big Apple. We were not going for the museums or the Broadway musicals. We were going to learn and to serve. Our new home for the week was the Queens-based New York School of Urban Ministry. From there we would disperse into a city filled with stories, armed only with our curiosity and our cameras, with the goal of documenting the stories of survivors of Hurricane Sandy.
Prior to the trip we had spent months engaged in a deep, cross-curricular study of climate change. We experimented with the properties of carbon dioxide in chemistry, and wrote research papers about ways to help slow climate change through legislation. For the most part, though, we had learned about the state of our environment through books. Now we were about to meet people who survived a superstorm that hit the coast at an escalated rate: a direct result of rising global temperatures. Our interviews would allow us to see the power of such a storm--and also the power of a small community when faced with a problem no individual could face alone.
The Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (BCS), an Expeditionary Learning school like my own, allowed us to use their space for our interviews. I was to interview Albert (AJ) Adjunar, a graduate of BCS living in Red Hook who continued to be involved with the school. In an empty classroom on the top floor of the school, my interview team and I set up a large tripod and extracted a few crumpled sheets of questions from our backpacks. Then AJ walked in dressed from head to toe in denim, at ease in the halls of his alma mater.
AJ is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. During his 10th grade year, his mother died due to a severe asthma attack. AJ recalled the days after his mother’s death when “my life kinda froze for a minute, I just had pretty much no clue of what to do next.” He was confused, as I would have been in his situation. For AJ, this was the start of an intense chapter in his life. After a long time spent trapped in his apartment behind a wall of grief and shock, he began to emerge from the fog of grief.
And then Sandy hit. He thought he had already lost everything. And then he lost everything again as the water rose and the power went out. During the storm, resources were hard to come by. Normally simple tasks, like homework and cooking, became difficult with flashlights as his only light source. Still, when I asked AJ about the storm, he found a silver lining. “That was the first time I’ve actually seen my community do anything to help each other.” Even through floods and outages, AJ saw the storm as an opportunity to see his city in a new light, where neighbors shared blankets, batteries, and company as they waited for the sleeping city to awaken. He said, “I’m telling you, at that moment it was just like we were all human.”
Despite having both emotional and physical loss due to traumatizing back-to-back events, AJ held his head high, stronger and more determined than ever before in the face of hardship. Even after the tragedy of his mother’s death and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, he maintained a bright attitude that inspires everyone in his presence. “When there’s a hurricane there’s a rainbow, and when it’s night, there are stars.”
The most extraordinary thing I learned from talking to AJ is that although disaster can level cities, you don’t have to let it defeat you. I realized that, supported by my community, I have the power to lift myself from adversity. Listening to his story revitalized my connection to school life and inspired me to see everything in my life as an opportunity. I learned a lot about the science and politics of climate change from books, but going to Queens and seeing its impact up close helped me connect the dots. I understood that living an environmentally conscious life isn’t just to protect my children’s children’s children. Complete strangers in places unknown to me face the brutal effects of our deteriorating environment. Seeing climate change first hand has made me much more clear about my place in the complex system that is our only home.
When we returned to Maine, we went to work on trying to capture his story in words and film. Although the oral history and documentary we created to capture AJ’s story were designed to educate others, they helped me understand and visualize just how much I had learned. Where the project showed me the amount of work necessary to begin repairing our planet, AJ taught me to see hope in the people around me, hope for a bright future for this generation, fueled by ambition and innovation.
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