Charlotte Teacher Starts Gift Card Drive For School Damaged By Hurricane Dorian

Sep 10, 2019

A south Charlotte middle school teacher has launched a drive to get aid to a tiny island school hard hit by Hurricane Dorian. She says she learned an important lesson from last year's hurricane aid effort.

Students in Leslie Nielsen's class at Community House Middle School in Charlotte work on posters seeking gift cards for Ocracoke School, which was damaged during Hurricane Dorian.
Credit ANN DOSS HELMS / WFAE

When Florence hit the coast in September 2018, social studies teacher Leslie Neilsen worked with her sixth-graders at Community House Middle in Charlotte to collect classroom supplies for storm-damaged schools in Wilmington.

Neilsen says the drive was almost too successful. By the end of it, her "entire class was wall-to-ceiling boxes of school supplies," she said.

Turns out it’s no small task to get 17 cases of supplies from south Charlotte to the coast. The relay took months and required couriers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the state, Neilsen says.

"When we heard Dorian was coming," she said, "I immediately started thinking, 'What can we do to streamline the process?'"

Her solution: Gift cards for Target, Walmart and Amazon. Over the weekend she launched a social media push to collect the cards for Ocracoke School, where every classroom was flooded during Dorian’s surge.

Almost all staff members and students had to deal with flooding at home as well, Hyde County Superintendent Stephen Basnight reported. The school remains closed until further notice, according to the district’s website.

Ocracoke School has fewer than 200 students in grades K-12, but it holds an oversize spot in the hearts of educators who have been to the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. They gather for professional seminars at a former Coast Guard station on the island.

Students in Leslie Nielsen's class at Community House Middle School in Charlotte work on posters seeking gift cards for Ocracoke School, which was damaged during Hurricane Dorian.
Credit ANN DOSS HELMS / WFAE

And Ocracoke School is part of that experience, Neilsen says.

"It’s like the center of their community," she said. "While we were there, we went to a basketball game at night, and the whole town turns out for it.

Even before school bells rang Monday morning, interest in Neilsen's campaign was building.

"I put out the word on Facebook and before you knew it, I was getting private messages from teachers all over the state of North Carolina who wanted to participate," she said.

Neilsen’s sixth-graders got into it, too. They designed posters to encourage students, faculty members and parents to donate.

Hiru Batugahage and a group of boys worked to illustrate the damage: "We’re going to have the school here, and the houses will be like, the roofs will be starting to be blown off," Hiru explained. "And then we’re going to have some floodwaters in here, too."

Neilsen says she’ll collect at Community House for a couple of weeks, then put a stack of gift cards in the mail. If the statewide response seems too much for one tiny school on one small island, educators in nearby Hatteras have told Neilsen they could use help too.

For more information about Neilsen's gift-card drive, which she calls "Be The Lighthouse," email her at lesliea.neilsen@cms.k12.nc.us.

On Tuesday, state Superintendent Mark Johnson also messaged educators and families to suggest making donations through a fund established after Hurricane Florence, which he said will buy classroom supplies for schools damaged in both storms.