By G. Seth Stephens, Chief Communications Officer
The holiday season, beginning with the traditional Thanksgiving break, can be a time of great joy and feasting for so many families. Yet, it can be a time that serves as a continual reminder that there are so many of our brothers and sisters that are in need or in crisis. Those in need may be a close family member or relative- or a neighbor, a coworker, or even yourself.
The starkness of need and crisis appeared unapologetically to me as I rode in the passenger seat of an OCS Operations Department sport-utility vehicle through Robeson County. It was mid-morning on December 1st, and it was by no mistake that I found myself in the SUV (a Ford Explorer, to be precise) with the Chief Operations Officer, Mr. Patrick Abele, holding steady at the wheel. In the few weeks preceding the Thanksgiving break this year, our district reached out to our families, staff, and community to help with an effort to deliver donations of clothing and money to help the families of the Public Schools of Robeson County (PSRC).
The year 2016 brought a significant but not terribly strong hurricane to the coast of the Carolinas: Hurricane Matthew. Though there was direct damage caused by wind and rain and the consequences of them mixing their forces together to wreak havoc, it was the Hurricane’s aftermath that changed the lives of so many fellow humans permanently and some terminally. Severe, major damage was sustained due to the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew. Given where Robeson County is located, floods and flooding can strike particularly hard.
Robeson County is a border county located in the southeastern corner of the state. It is the largest county in the state in terms of land area, and it does not have any high elevations in its locale of the coastal plain. Many an east coast traveler has been through Robeson County at one point. Interstate 95 runs through it, and just beyond the southern borders of Robeson County lies the infamous attraction heralded as “South of the Border.” The bright lights of South of the Border and the long white lines of I-95 can make Robeson County a fleeting memory for those just passing through. I would be remiss not to mention the people of the county. In 2008, demographers determined that the county was a majority-minority county. The majority of the population of the county is of people of color, with a sizable percentage of that being the people of the Lumbee tribe.
There are some areas in North Carolina where there might exist an embarrassment of riches. Given the lay of the land in the wake of the flood of Hurricane Matthew, Robeson County would not be so aptly called. When our Superintendent Dr. Todd Wirt issued his call to action to help the families of the school system in Robeson County, it was a call to help families who were and still are in the most dire need. We reached out to the Superintendent of their schools, Tommy Lowry, and to their Public Information Officer, Tasha Oxendine, to gather what it was their families needed most. I thought that we would get requests like canned food, book bags, school supplies, and other accessories to the daily necessaries of life. Instead, what we heard back was that they needed the most basic of items. They needed clean, new underwear, bras, undershirts, socks, and coats. They needed shirts and pants and shoes and jeans. They didn’t need book bags yet. They didn’t just need canned food; they needed food and somewhere to prepare it. The number of students and families experiencing homelessness in Robeson County post-wake of the flood would simply shock you. The number did not seem possible to me. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was providing assistance to the area ravaged by the flooding, and a part of that effort included paying for housing for many families-- in motels. What the families in Robeson County needed (and still do) are the things that so many of us take for granted each day: stable housing, undergarments, food security, and the sense of normalcy that comes with an established routine.
As a district, we reached out for help with the donation drive. We collected socks, shoes, under garments, shirts, food, coats, and money. All told, we collected over eight pallets of boxes filled with clothing and almost $2000 in checks made out to the Public Schools of Robeson County. So, on the morning of December 1st, Mr. Abele gathered a small crew to load a school bus full with donations to be delivered to Robeson County. More specifically, we were headed to Lumberton. With address in hand, we gladly set out to our destination.
The trek to Lumberton required few road changes, and it was smooth sailing into Robeson County via I-95 South. Hurricane Matthew had long since left Robeson County, but it effects were readily apparent once we entered into the Lumberton area. There were piles of debris that looked like small mountains. At first, many of the large mounds that I could see from the highway looked as if they were just hills of backfill dirt. But, given the opportunity to look at the piles, I could see that the piles consisted of broken concrete, twisted metal, wood, branches, glass, and what was at one time a mass of mud. The utility poles that marked and stretched along the interstate and neighboring roads stuck out visually due to the newness of the green-colored pole of pine protruding out of the ground. Patrick had driven into to Lumberton and we were just about to get off our exit when I looked over to my left and saw a huge wrecking ball careening through the air. It was about to make contact with its target: a church. Clearly, the church had been damaged and it was being dispatched as part of what looked like an effort to raze it to ground to be rebuilt, perhaps, at some time in the future. My visual inspection of the area took a more acute focus with all the buildings in eyesight. Water marks on buildings were as ubiquitous as tears at a funeral.
Our final destination in Lumberton to drop off the donations was at a warehouse. Tasha had given me the address earlier that morning and asked me to call her when we were in town so that she could help us find the warehouse. She said that the warehouse wasn’t a building that they normally rely upon, but the flooding had caused so much damage to so many of their buildings, that this was one the places they were working from. The Board of Education office, the Child Nutrition Services office, and main Operations office had sustained such damage as to render them unusable. Some of their central office staff had relocated to a child care center very close to some of the damaged PSRC offices. Tasha had informed me earlier that the warehouse wasn’t too far off the beaten path. I figured that Google would easily get us there. Google wasn’t perfect that day, and that was fine by me. That gave me more time to take note of my surroundings and begin to comprehend the damage that had occurred. The disruption and displacement were all around.
When we finally arrived at the warehouse, Tasha was standing there waiting to receive us. She was welcoming and kind. I felt proud. I felt proud that we, fellow brothers and sisters in humanity, had taken a step or two to help and support others that were in need. I know that the donations didn’t end the many challenges the families in Robeson County were and still are facing, but every step we take towards positively helping others is a step in the right direction.
Within minutes of arrival, Superintendent Lowry was there to greet us as well. As the Orange County Schools bus backed into to the large bay of a warehouse that could envelope a big-box superstore, Superintendent Tommy Lowry, Patrick, and Tasha were knee-deep in conversation. Patrick was quite familiar with the area due to the fact the he had worked for PSRC a few years back. Tasha explained that the Superintendent had just come from checking on schools and staff. Though the schools were open, the school day was anything but typical. Some schools didn’t have functioning cafeterias, and gymnasiums became makeshift dining halls. Apart from schools having to change how they operated, staff in the district were doing jobs and fulfilling roles they could have never countenanced to be thrust upon them. Tasha was drafting requests for vendors to put in bids (“RFPs”) on architecture contracts. The district athletic director was doing mobile food service. The Board of Education for PSRC had hired a third party to manage the literal rebuilding of the district.
Not one complaint or “woe is me” was uttered by Mr. Tommy or Ms. Tasha (using the Mr./Ms. with someone's first name seemed to be the rule for politeness in Lumberton). In fact, they were positive in everything they said. Tasha commented more than once how blessed they were. She recanted the story of one of their maintenance workers standing in water, with rubber waders, who quickly noticed that the electrical outlets in the building where he was standing had live electricity running through them. He was blessed because he was still alive. The will of the people of Robeson County was not shaken or deterred.
As our crew unloaded the bus, our previously sorted boxes of donations were stacked on palettes that were taken away by a forklift. I scanned the warehouse floor to find that there wasn’t much other than stacks of salvaged classroom furniture and cases of bottled water from FEMA that were within easy reach. Our palettes of donations did not fill the expanse of the building, but I know it made a difference for the families that would soon receive our offerings of support. As Tasha explained to me, PSRC was setting up a “store” for families to be able to choose which items they needed and take back to their families. She explained to me how it was going to be set-up and that it was going to happen the following week. She gladly agreed to send a few pictures of the store once it was open for the families.
While she was talking to me about the store, I was staring at the water bottles. The sight of them made me ask about food and if there was a similar store or pantry that had been established for food items. And, it made me recall what I had seen earlier while riding ito to town. On the way into to Lumberton, I could see folks- older and younger- in the parking lots of the motels and hotels that lined the side roads to the interstate. At one of the motels, I had noticed what I thought was a cookout. Tasha nodded as I described the scene in the motel parking lot. She suggested that what I had probably seen was one of the local churches preparing and feeding the families that were in the motels. I was determined to look more closely on the way back home.
The fully loaded school bus was easily unloaded by our dedicated crew of teammates who were honored to be a part of the delivery. Patrick and I wrapped up our conversations with Mr. Tommy and Ms. Tasha. We knew there was so much work for them left to get done that day and in the many days and months ahead. Without overstating the magnitude of the job that lays ahead for the Public Schools Robeson County, there will be years of heavy budget pressures and strictures, years of rebuilding, and years of trying to help families become whole again. Some of the families of their school district will never be made whole again as they once were. Many of those families were forced to relocate to other areas, like neighboring Cumberland County or Hoke County. Some of those families may never return to Robeson County. Their houses may be gone, but their sense of what home was not destroyed, just changed.
As we bid Superintendent Lowry and Ms. Oxendine goodbye, they had smiles on their face; genuine smiles. They thanked us most sincerely. We said goodbye to them, but we were not saying farewell. We implored them to not only stay in touch with us, we asked them to let us know what more we could do to help. Whether it was assistance with RFPs, a need for some consumer good, or just plain help of any kind, we wanted to help.
Our Operations crew got back on the bus and set the course to return to Hillsborough. Patrick and I hopped back into the SUV, and we got on the road. I told Patrick to do me a favor and drive a little slower on the interstate going through Lumberton so that I could take note of what I was seeing. He obliged. He knew what I was doing. He had once lived in Lumberton for a few years and still felt the strong sense of community with the people and the land. Once back on I-95, I peered ahead to see if the the motel we passed earlier (that was having what I thought was cookout midday on a Friday) still had folks congregated in its parking lot. There were plenty of people there. The were plenty of hungry people in line and waiting to be served food. As I gazed at the parking lot, trying to discern every person and every detail, my scanning stopped when I could clearly make out an older woman- to some, elderly- with stark white, learned hair. She was scooping warm food onto a plate that she was handing to a child no more the age of kindergartener. I saw what Tasha had seen and known. There was a motel parking lot full of people waiting for food, and there was a line of people waiting to serve each child, mother, and father.
Our school system extends a thoughtful thank-you to all in our community that contributed to our donation to the families in Robeson County. We thank those that wanted to give but could not because they are in need as well. There is always a need to be filled, in and out of the classroom. It is a duty and a privilege to answer the call for help.