Naples | Thirteen months and six days after Hurricane Irma ripped apart St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, students returned to repaired and renovated classrooms in the elementary building.
The morning assembly was electric as the young girls and boys talked excitedly about returning to the classrooms Oct. 16. “I can’t wait,” said one kindergartner. Her best friend said, “I’m so excited. This is the best school day ever.”
Principal Maria Niebuhr praised the students, faculty, staff, volunteers and parents for their patience through the entire rebuilding process. “Hurricane Irma may have disrupted our routine and where we held classes, but the spirit of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School has remained strong. This is an exciting time for us all. We have all been blessed and are grateful to be back home.”
The daily morning prayer service was held in the hall shared by the school and parish. Father Luis Pacheco led the prayers and included a special blessing for the students and the newly repaired buildings. He also blessed the children with holy water.
Following the Pledge of Allegiance, after the prayer service concluded, the principal dismissed the students to go to their first class of the day. A cheer went up as the teachers led their charges from the hall to the school. Balloons with the school’s colors (black and red) lined the fence and blew in the wind, adding to the festive atmosphere.
Although the school structure is the same, many improvements and updates have been made: hurricane-proof windows installed throughout the building; new roofs for the schools and cafeteria; all floors replaced; new cabinetry and counter-tops; new LED lighting; new paint; and updated technology and phones installed. The old school office has been converted back to a classroom where Spanish classes will be held. The school offices were transitioned upstairs until a new addition can be constructed in the next year or so.
After the hurricane closed the school for several weeks, the students were forced to return to school in temporarily repaired rooms with the concrete on the floor visible. The bulk of the construction began in the spring and the students transitioned into portable classrooms located in the school parking lot.
The students received a sneak preview of their classrooms Oct. 12 as they helped to bring supplies from the portables, but Oct. 16 was the big day.
First-grade teacher Dana Hilmoe welcomed a visit to her classroom by Niebuhr, Father Pacheco and Diocese Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ben Moore. The visitors all raved about how bright and wonderful the room looks. Hurricane Irma had blown out the windows to the room, allowing rainwater to flood the carpeting and get into the cabinetry.
“This is so wonderful,” Hilmoe said. “It was worth the wait.”
Parents who stayed for the prayer service and escorted their children to the classroom left impressed. “It’s so beautiful,” one mom told Niebuhr. “Congratulations. You did a great job,” said a dad.
There is a still some small work to be done, touch-ups of paint as well as the installing of baseboards. Renovations to the students and faculty restrooms will be done during the weeks of Christmas break.