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School principals on switching gears, running shelters

OVER one month has passed since Super Typhoon Yutu barreled across the CNMI, and Saipan’s shelters are still hosting displaced residents.

When Yutu was still a storm on the horizon, the Public School System converted several campuses across Saipan into what were expected to be temporary shelters, to be run by the schools’ supporting staff. PSS followed a similar process before Soudelor, welcoming families to take refuge in public schools during the typhoon and throughout the following week.

But because Yutu destroyed so many homes across Saipan, local elementary school, middle school, and high school principals have been saddled with the enormous task of running long-term shelters that, at their highest capacity, offered roofs and relief to nearly 200 people each.

Raena CamachoRaena Camacho
Hilda RiosHilda Rios

“I wouldn’t consider it a burden,” said Raena Camacho, principal of Gregorio T. Camacho Elementary. “We wanted to help relieve some of our colleagues.”

Like the rest of the shelter managers, Camacho works 12-hour shifts. And while some shelter tasks are fairly routine — like passing out meals and acting as a liaison between different government agencies and NGO’s — Camacho and her staff also face the challenge of meeting residents’ needs as they occur in real time, all while adjusting to power and water outages, space constraints, and new directives from PSS higher-ups.

“It can’t be as easy as, ‘Step 1, Step 2,’ or ‘This is protocol,’” said Hilda Rios, principal of Tanapag Middle School. “Many times, I’ve had to put that away and just be a person.”

Rios said that her residents required more than food, water, and shelter:

“It’s not necessarily materialistic need, so much as it is an emotional need…everybody just wants to know that they were going to be ok.”

When asked how she and her staff provided emotion relief to TMS residents, Rios said, “You listen to them. You listen to their stories. You listen to their challenges. You become not just somebody that they look to for answers but you become their friend, possibly family.”

PSS staffers are accustomed to working in a community hub; regardless of the weather, they team up with students, parents and government organizations to manage the education of the CNMI’s youth. But running a shelter requires them to navigate new social dynamics when maintaining order and enforcing rules.

“Working with kids is a lot easier than working with adults,” Rios said. “It’s hard to change behavior of adults.”

“That’s not always a bad thing,” she added. “It’s just that sometimes when adults have a way of doing things, you have to understand that that’s how they are. and on both ends we have to work together to meet at a compromising point because there are things that they may not be used to, things that they’re not comfortable with.”

For example, when the shelters were at their fullest, one classroom housed up to five families. To maintain cleanliness, shelter staffers needed to ensure that their residents refrained from eating in classrooms and kept their small spaces organized.

In fact, there are many rules in place to keep residents safe and the shelters running smoothly: children cannot be left at the shelter without a guardian, only parents are allowed to pick up meals, restrooms and toilets must be maintained, and smoking is prohibited on campus.

And it requires grace to respectfully and effectively enforce shelter rules on a population that has just lost everything.

“That’s a challenge that we have as shelter managers — to make sure that there’s some kind of order and cooperation and understanding,” said Rios. “if you don’t have that character in you to do something like that, then it becomes very difficult.”

That said, by all accounts the shelter residents have been ready and willing to cooperate.

“They follow the rules,” said Rios, “and if they don’t, a nice, friendly reminder is all we need.”

But it’s not just the shelter residents who must be willing to work with PSS staff; shelter managers also require the support of their own families, who need to adjust to their family members’ new and extended working schedules.

“I have a toddler,” said Camacho. “it’s not easy leaving a toddler when you’re working twelve hours. But my family has been supportive and that’s what keeps me going.”

“I remind my kids when I come home late, it’s because I’m helping other people,” said Rios. “And they’re ok with that.”

For many shelter staffers and volunteers, the biggest challenge is coming to terms with the fact that they can’t offer more to their residents.

“The stories you hear are heartbreaking,” said Ashley Randal, a Red Cross volunteer from Flint, Michigan. “There are people here that lost everything, and we can only provide them with a little bit… that’s always a challenge for me because I want to give them everything I have, give it my all. But there’s only so much we can do.”

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is say, ‘This is as far as we can go, and let me try to get back to you,’” said Rios. “And that’s hard sometimes. When you know they need the help and you can’t help them, that’s even harder.”

Still, the residents and staffers are grateful for how much aid is made available at the shelters through the collaboration of local government agencies, local non-profits, FEMA, Red Cross and individual community members simply offering time and supplies.

“I think we all owe our community a big thank you because everyone’s doing their part,” said Camacho.

“Sometimes I think it’s a great place to be,” Rios said of the shelters. “Although I do want my school to open up soon. Because I do miss my students. And I bet my students miss school.”

Source: Marianas Variety : http://www.mvariety.com/cnmi/cnmi-news/local/109179-school-principals-on-switching-gears-running-shelters

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