Administrators at South County Secondary School decided it wasn't enough to open a brand new school last week; on the second day of classes, volunteers loaded up nearly half of an 18-wheeler trailer and shipped off donations to victims of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.
"We're taking over 5,000 gallons of water and 100,000 meals," said Eric Olson, one of the volunteers who accompanied the truck to Mississippi. Olson works for UDC, a credit company in Chantilly, whose owners gave $200,000 to rent the truck for the trip.
The first stop was to be in South Carolina, where the truck was to be filled with Meals Ready to Eat, donated from a military base there to feed thousands of storm refugees, Olson said.
"Once we get to Mississippi, we'll fall in with the relief effort there," he said. "There's another shipment going on Monday. We figure it'll be two to three months of trips like this."
Donations started arriving with students during the first day of school in the new facility, said guidance counselor Marci Norem. "My family's from Biloxi," she said, adding that concern for her family and countless others prompted her to ask Dale Rumberger, the school's principal, if the donation drive could be at the school prior to its opening.
"This is beyond anything I could have ever imagined," said Norem, waist-deep in boxes to be sorted and shipped on Wednesday, Sept. 7. at 8:15 a.m. "The community has been so amazingly supportive. We're a brand new school and we're still able to pull this off."
Norem said she and a handful of volunteers were at the school until well after 9 p.m. the night before. They returned Wednesday around 6:30 a.m. to sort through donations so that they could be loaded on the truck once it arrived around 9:30 a.m.
"Donations were coming in by the droves and truckloads," she said, adding that some donations were coming in from parents and students that weren't part of the South County School district.
"It was just the right thing to do," said Rumberger, who was involved in a relief effort similar to this one during his college years, using a mobile classroom to help people affected by a tornado in Ohio.
"When you see something like that, when you get a taste of what utter devastation is, it imprints in your mind," he said. "Seeing the Katrina coverage , we forget that it's not just three or four cities that need to recover, it's an entire wide swath."
RUMBERGER SAID he "can't imagine" how difficult it is to be a principal in the effected area, some of whom have lost their buildings entirely and others whose gymnasiums have become relief centers.
The silver lining of this disaster, he said, is the community coming together to help out. "We're finding out who are community is, who are our neighbors," he said. "I'm very, very proud of this community and my faculty, that they were willing to take on this additional responsibility."
Many of the volunteers on hand to load the truck had spent part of their summer setting up the new school.
"I needed to help," said Ray Miles, a father of two students at the school who otherwise would have been spending his morning at work at Northrop Grumann. "I feel really badly for all the people down there. I never would've imagined this much stuff, and this is just 24 hours worth of donations."
Along with her two children, Chris Bachman had spent time dropping off donations on Tuesday and returned Wednesday morning to pack items. "When I first got here yesterday, there were only two people helping," she said. "I think [the school] is surprised by how much they got. This school just opened and they don't know what to expect from the community. If they need $1,500 for another truck, it won't be a problem for us to get that for them," she said.
The trailer, measuring 48 feet long and 102 inches high, was packed to 40 percent capacity, the remaining to be filled by the MRE's, said James Carter, the truck's driver. "My boss asked me if I wanted to do this, and I was looking for a way to help," he said. "For the next three months, I'll be there as much as I can. I don't think my wife'll be too happy," he said with a smile.