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Hurricane Sandy-Hit School Teaches Students to Serve Others

By Katie Honan | October 28, 2013 7:37am
 Principal Katie Grady, inside her office at P.S 104 in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Principal Katie Grady, inside her office at P.S 104 in Far Rockaway, Queens.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

FAR ROCKAWAY — The biggest challenge of Principal Katie Grady’s career came on Oct. 29, 2012, when Hurricane Sandy flooded and destroyed her Breezy Point home and seriously affected most of the students, faculty and staff at P.S 104, the Mott Avenue school she runs in Far Rockaway.

“I’ve been living and breathing Hurricane Sandy from the day it happened, both personally and professionally,” she said.

Grady, 53, rode out the storm in the attic of her brother’s home along with other family members, including an elderly aunt. She watched as water rushed through the first floor, trying to remain calm in the dark as winds thrashed the small house. She’s been away from her home since then, living first for months at her two adult children’s apartment in Brooklyn and now on her brother’s couch.

But despite what she’s been through, she’s worked the past year to make sure her other family — the people at P.S 104 — has been taken care of.

“That first week I was on the phone with staff — staff members who literally had to run or swim out of their homes with just the clothes on their backs,” Grady said.

Eighty-five percent of the P.S. 104 staff lives in areas impacted by the storm, and a third of its teachers and administrators were displaced.

After the hurricane, Grady and her staff got to work to find ways to aid their students and the community, receiving help from as far away as Germany.

It was the response they received from dozens of small groups — individuals and schools just like their own — that inspired Grady to “pay it forward," or extend the same generosity they received to other schools impacted by tragedies.

She’s created a program, titled "Play It Forward," with a school in Connecticut that  “adopted” them after the storm.

The program encourages kids to help other schools impacted by tragedies.

It’s become an initiative P.S. 104 students have fully committed to, Grady said. When something bad happens, they ask her how they can help.

“They’ve walked in those shoes. They know how it feels,” she said.

Grady hopes to grow Play It Forward into a national movement that allows children to help each other during times of crisis.

The educator who started her career with a position as a junior high school English teacher in 1988 became the principal of P.S. 104 in 2006. She received a bachelor's in English from Le Moyne College, a master's in secondary education from Brooklyn College and a master's in educational leadership from Bank Street College.

Q: Has being personally and professionally impacted by Hurricane Sandy changed the way you view your role as principal? 

My philosophy in life is that the higher one rises in a position of authority, the more responsible one is to serve. Times of crisis can bring out the best in others or the worst. I knew that as the leader of a school it was my responsibility to “rally the troops” to help all those affected in our school community. We needed to provide clothing for those who had lost their belongings. We needed to provide food for those families that lost jobs and weren’t making ends meet. We needed to provide comfort for those who were weary from the daily challenges. We needed to provide strength and solace for those who were feeling lost. My team did this and a principal is only as good as the team that is behind her. I am the luckiest principal in all of New York City because I have the finest team behind me.

Q: What have been some of the additional challenges you and your staff have faced while recovering from the storm? 

With one in three teachers displaced from their homes for many months, we had affected staff teaching affected children and working with affected families. We had staff with young children who were dealing with children’s fears both at home and in school. And we still had New York City mandates to meet. We still had the New York State exams to take. We were still being held to the same standards and measures as the rest of the state.

Q: How have you integrated service into your school's curriculum?

Children who volunteer grow to be empowered adults who know that they can bring change to the lives of others and society. As a NYCDOE School Wellness Mentor school and also a Common Cents Penny Harvest school, we integrate our service learning into our daily curriculum. Our school holds a walkathon on a monthly basis to promote physical activity as well as raise money for a cause. At the end of our school year, each student will have walked the length of a virtual marathon. Our Penny Harvest Roundtable representatives — a coalition of elected students — are the ones that vote for which causes they wish to walk. They then set the guidelines of what is required. 

What warmed my heart the most about our students in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is their first response was, “What can we do to help our community?” This came from children who were undergoing their own crisis.

Q: You hope to expand Play It Forward to schools across the country. Why do you feel this is so important for students and other schools? 

Scotland Elementary and P.S. 104 are working towards expanding the “Play It Forward” initiative across the country because it is powerful. Children helping children in crisis teaches civic responsibility, respect, caring and the power of helping others. Our main support after Hurricane Sandy came from the simple acts of kindness from other schools. Our help and solace came from ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Q: What's the most important lesson you hope your students take away from this disaster? 

I think that the most important lesson is that we are resilient and that each of us can make our world a better place. I learned a long time ago that the only constant in life is that everything will change. How we deal with those changes speaks volumes about who we are. Possessions come and go, but the simple acts of kindness that we do for each other define us as human beings. We will all meet tragedy at some point in our lives, with challenges from which to grow. As we say on a daily basis here at the school, “Make it a great day or not. The choice is yours!”