Finding a New Normal in a Community that Lost Almost Everything

Written by Kaitlyn Godfrey, College Adviser for Wallace Rose-Hill High School in Duplin County, N.C.

I went into my second year as the college adviser at Wallace-Rose Hill High School with a newfound confidence.

My first year was spent learning how to navigate my new community and finding my role within my school. I developed relationships with my staff and students, while discovering how to balance my position with my personal life and post-Corps preparation. I had the 2018-2019 school year mapped out and thought I knew exactly what to expect. I could have never predicted, two and a half weeks into it, a hurricane would take a direct hit on my community.

Hurricane Florence devastated Duplin County and most of southeastern North Carolina. Many of my students and staff members lost their homes and belongings to the flood waters. Several of the school buildings in the county, including Wallace-Rose Hill, were severely damaged and had to be repaired before they were deemed safe. We were out of school for six-and-a-half weeks while my community fought to rebuild after the unimaginable.

Rumors began to spread we might be out of school until early November. After five weeks passed, advisers began holding “office hours” off campus at local libraries and at nearby community colleges in order to meet with students and parents. We knew college was not necessarily the most pressing matter for many students, but we wanted to make sure we were available for students who were becoming stressed by the upcoming college deadlines and wanted to meet with us.

I have never been more excited to see my students than when school finally resumed in late October. Most of the students were relieved to be back after a long six-and-a-half weeks. They longed to see their friends and return to a normal schedule to reestablish a sense of normality. Our staff worked to identify students who had been dislocated or experienced loss in order to help connect them with the resources available within the school and community. Our priority was ensuring students were safe and their basic human needs were being met.

My first few days back in school were spent listening to my students’ stories about their experiences during the storm. I learned watermarks in some of my students’ homes showed the water had risen to above shoulder-height. I learned that some of my students had volunteered to actively rescue people and animals from the floodwaters. I saw pictures showing my students getting around their neighborhood via kayak or boat. I will take these stories with me long after my time as a Wallace-Rose Hill Bulldog has ended.

Several months have passed since we returned, but there are still reminders of the storm everywhere. Our school is still undergoing repairs and many students and staff are still dislocated. Some students are still staying with relatives or have moved into one of the few rental properties available in the area. Several others are living in RVs or campers on their property while they wait for their homes to be rebuilt, which could be years.

It is now January and Wallace-Rose Hill has begun to settle into a new “post-Florence” normal. Seniors are hard at work on their post-secondary plans and more than half have already completed their college applications and are anxiously awaiting to hear from their dream schools. This year has been challenging for everyone involved, but I have witnessed such growth in my students and community. I am proud to be a part of a staff who has banded together to do what is best for the students. I will never forget the Wallace-Rose Hill Class of 2019 and the strength and resilience they displayed in the face of tragedy and loss. My students have inspired me more than they will ever know and I cannot wait to see all they accomplish in the future.