Student Volunteers Come to Aid of Disaster Victims

By Lisa Jennings — November 15, 1989 3 min read

Minutes after a major earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay area last month, a 16-year-old high-school student named Paul Bernard ran to his neighborhood fire station and asked what he could do to help.

For hours, the teenager helped answer the phone to free up emergency workers. Over the following days, Paul also served food to people in shelters who had lost their homes.

Paul is just one of thousands of students across the country who pooled their efforts to help victims of both the earthquake in California, and of Hurricane Hugo in the Carolinas.

School officials in both regions have hundreds of stories to tell about how students, schools, and entire school districts helped collect money, food, school supplies, toys, and clothing for disaster victims.

Teachers from across the country said that such projects not only go far in helping build students’ self-esteem, but also are an excellent way to teach students to be “good global citizens,” as one teacher put it.

For students like Paul Bernard in San Francisco, helping his community in an emergency was not only a good deed, it was homework.

Paul is taking a course in community studies and service, taught in five schools throughout the San Francisco Unified School District by Dianne Bolotte, who directs volunteer programs for the school system.

Students in the elective course are required to do volunteer work. The class began in January as a three-year pilot program.

According to Ms. Bolotte, the earthquake provided her students with the perfect opportunity to see how they can make a difference. Their work after the disaster also played a vital part in the students’ ability to cope with the disaster themselves.

“When they couldn’t get involved, they just felt helpless. But once they were connected, it really helped their mental state,” she said.

Initially, however, the students’ offer to help was turned down.

“I guess a lot of adults couldn’t comprehend how valuable student volunteers could be,” Ms. Bolotte said. “The kids were really frustrated because they had been taught in class to volunteer, but they were being turned away because of age.”

Eventually, however, the students were able to serve food in shelters, provide child care, and organize fundraisers. In class, they discussed their efforts and kept journals.

The experience, Ms. Bolotte contends, was irreplaceable. But after more than a month of earthquake efforts, she plans to return the classes to their previous studies and volunteer work. “It’s important to get back to normal,” she said.

Not only students in San Francisco offered to help. In Los Angeles, for example, Reseda High School students raised $250 for quake victims.

And officials in both cities note that some of the physical cleanup help came from urban youth corps from across the country, groups made up largely of school dropouts.

Meanwhile, in the past three weeks, students in Charleston, S.C., have been concentrating on getting back to their schoolwork after missing 18 days of class.

Facilities there, however, are so badly damaged that many students are forced to double up in neighboring schools, and to share supplies.

School officials in Charleston, however, say they have been amazed at the outpouring of help from schools all over the world.

Each school in the district has been “adopted” by other schools, districts, or classrooms elsewhere, which have been sending money, supplies, books, and even desks.

So many have offered their help, according to one school official, that the district must now turn down would-be donors.

Students at Caddo Magnet High School in Shreveport, La., for example, raised more than $700 for the Charleston schools, and are now collecting money and supplies for the Burke Magnet High School, which the Louisiana school has adopted.

In Cleveland, two 6th-grade classes at Brady Middle School started a toy drive dubbed “Project Kid to Kid.” Their teacher, Deb Delisle, said the students came up with the idea after a class discussion on the hurricane’s effects.

“We were talking about insurance, and they began to realize that ‘kids things,’ like the favorite teddy bear, would not be recovered,” she said.

The children collected more than 2,600 stuffed animals--each cleaned and tagged with a personal note--plus toys and books that filled 80 boxes weighing 1,200 pounds. American Airlines flew the packages to South Carolina free of charge, Ms. Delisle noted.

The students have decided to continue volunteering by reading to inner-city kindergartners.

“We have long understood that many kids care about other people, but they often don’t understand how to act on that caring,” Ms. Delisle said. “They’ve learned by doing.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Student Volunteers Come to Aid of Disaster Victims