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Gulf Coast educator thanks HWRSD for help

Dawn Bechtel met with Hampden-Wilbraham school staff and administration during a surprise visit last week. She is flanked by School Committee chair Scott Chapman on the left and Superintendent Dr. Paul Gagliarducci. Reminder photo by Natasha Clark
By Natasha Clark

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM On Aug. 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast causing devastating conditions, leaving more than a 1,000 dead, many more thousands displaced and communities leveled and under water.

The impact of a storm with speeds of up to 175 miles per hour were still felt last week, as Aug. 29 marked the one-year anniversary of one of the deadliest hurricanes recorded in the history of the United States.

A year later, hope still burns within those looking to rebuild their lives in communities they once called home. Mississipi resident Dawn Bechtel brought some of that hope with her when she visited the Hampden-Wilbraham School District last week.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Hampden-Wilbraham Educational Association became involved with the Picayune, Mississippi School District through the National Education Association's "Adopt A School Program."

Through a variety of fund-raising efforts at each of the schools, the District's faculty, staff, students, and parents raised in excess of $7,400.

These funds were used to provide financial support to Camp Hip Hop in Picayune, Mississippi, which provided summer activities for hundreds of children adversely affected by the storms.

Bechtel is Project Coordinator and Grant and Summer Camp Director for the Picayune School District. As a surprise part of the opening day ceremonies celebrated at Minnechaug on Aug. 28, Bechtel addressed the returning faculty and staff concerning the District's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Described by Assistant Superintendent Donna Scanlon as a "bundle of energy and a powerhouse of ideas," Bechtel said that when her district took in students from New Orleans misplaced by Hurricane Katrina the population went from 10,000 to 30,000.

Bechtel told the story of high school students who were not able to take senior year pictures or attend their prom, and about the emotional repercussions of losing their homes, friends, and family.

"You have been such a blessing to Picayune and our school district," she said.

Bechtel played a video that captured all of the opportunities created for students thanks to contributions. From spelling bees to "Elementary Olympics," Camp Hip Hop (Health is precious, Health is our priority) to classes abouthHurricane preparedness, donations even helped offer students field trips to places like the Stennis Space Center.

"You, my friends, deserve a badge of honor," Bechtel told staff. "Picayune means small and insignificant, but we're not small and insignificant anymore."

She spoke to faculty about the destruction from the storm how her brother and sister, her parents, lost everything.

Bechtel read a list of things she has learned as a result of living through Hurricane Katrina, among them were: "I've learned God is in control and life goes on ... MRE's (Meals-ready-to-eat) are good when you're hungry ... People do care ... Live life to the fullest ... Live each day as if it were your last ... Ultimately, things don't matter, people do ... There are no strangers, only friends we have not met yet."

Bechtel said 27 trees came down around her house, five of which landed on her home which helped result in $60,000 worth of damage. She said the insurance company sent an adjuster to inspect the damage, and he gave her a check that covered only the $60,000 in damages. After that, Bechtel said he came three more times, and now, a year later, they are just starting repairs. She said right now she has a FEMA trailor on her property.

Still Bechtel said she manages to put on a brave face daily for her students.

"I have a lot of love and compassion in my heart for those kids. Life does go on," she said.