AFT President Randi Weingarten traveled to Houston Sept. 15-16 to meet with people affected by Hurricane Harvey. Although most of the city's schools reopened on Sept. 11, several campuses remain closed while they are being repaired, and some schools are doubling up with other schools until repairs are complete. Weingarten began her day at one such school: Holland Middle School has welcomed students from nearby Robinson Elementary, a school that suffered extensive damage from the storm.
At Holland, Weingarten met with educators and students from both schools. The students received free books and supplies through the Essentials for Kids Fund, a partnership that includes the AFT, First Book and the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. The fund was set up to provide books and supplies to educators, students and schools following the hurricane.
"The first question we asked is, 'What can we do? ' " said Weingarten. "A union is a family, and we are doing what we can to help educators and students deal with the impact of Hurricane Harvey."
"I'm proud that we're playing a small role in helping bring resources together to teachers who have been affected in their classrooms by a loss of materials and supplies," said Neil Bush (the son of Barbara and George Bush), who attended the giveaway, along with Houston schools superintendent Richard Carranza and Kyle Zimmer of First Book.
"To know that you all are providing books for us is amazing," said Michelle Collins, a fifth-grade teacher at Robinson. Being displaced from her school has been challenging, especially since all of her books were lost to the hurricane, she said. "I'm excited because the students actually have something that's on their reading level and interest to read, so it's making my job easier and bringing joy to the kids to be able to read books again."
Cleanup continues in Houston communities, and Weingarten was able to meet with teachers who were displaced and union members who are volunteering with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
"Harvey took a toll on many of our members, but Houston is strong and we'll bounce back," said Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo, who is an AFT vice president. "We've identified 1,200 of our members who were impacted by the storm, and we're getting resources to them and helping them get access to things they need to start rebuilding their lives and move forward."
Union members are not only helping with cleanup, but many are also stepping up in other ways. In her recent column, "The everyday heroes of the hurricanes," Weingarten points to Kristen McClintock, a special education teacher at Houston's Westside High School and HFT member as a great example of this. McClintock and her colleagues organized 150 teachers to go into shelters after the storm to provide a place that was safe, quiet and calm to help students regain a sense of normalcy. The teachers provided toys and noise-reducing headphones to help children cope.
"Being in a shelter is chaotic enough on its own," said McClintock, who noted that she was specially seeking out children who might have disabilities or challenges.
As Weingarten's visit came to a close, her message to teachers and volunteers was clear: "We are here to say that we stand with you, we are here for you, and we will continue to be by your side as you recover and rebuild. That's who we are as educators and union members."