TONAWANDA — Cardinal O'Hara High School suffered its worst disaster in its 58-year history the weekend of Feb. 9 when two pipes burst cascading water into the fine arts hallway damaging classrooms and offices.
However, out of all the tragedy came great rays of hope and a camaraderie that resounded with the entire Cardinal O'Hara community. Jeanne Wantz, chair of the Religion Department, summed up everyone's feelings with "We are family."
Parents and students who expected to volunteer at bingo that Sunday, grabbed brooms and shovels instead of bingo cards, working for hours moving the water out of the hallway into drains.
"I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the many parents, students and staff, who came into school on Sunday, to assist with the extensive water main break cleanup," Principal Mary Holzerland said. "We had many Home School Bingo parents, students and staff involved throughout the afternoon. The number of additional parents, Booster members, faculty and staff who called to offer their help was amazing. "Without their quick thinking and willingness to dive right in to help solve the problem, the damage would have been much worse," she said.
On Monday, Holzerland asked teachers and staff to report to help with cleanup. At 8 a.m. dressed in work clothes, all came to school ready to pitch in. The work seemed daunting.
First up, was moving all the musical instruments out of the band room and cleaning each piece that sustained any water damage. Rachel Birkman, named band director just two weeks ago, thanked everyone for help in moving around all the instruments, equipment and classroom materials.
"They all made this much easier than if I had tried to do this alone," Birkman said. All of the band equipment moved to the auditorium where it was a tight fit as there are 42 members of the band and ensemble. "It's doable even though we have to share space with the dance program that uses the stage," Birkman smiled. "But we've worked it out together."
Then 42 chairs from the chorus room, along with the piano, were taken to their new "home" in the auditorium foyer.
Colin Sperrazza, director of vocal music and department chair thanked the faculty for helping move his room to its new location. "It's so great to have such amazing colleagues," he said.
One of the perks from the move is that offices in the hall adjacent to the auditorium are now treated to the Song Corps rehearsing. "It's wonderful hearing them sing," said Brigid Knott, director of finance.
Art teacher Katie Sehr was saddened by the loss of rolls of paper and foamcore that absorbed the water and had to be thrown out along with some student art work. "But one of the parents sent in two end rolls of paper, and the art studio where I have my art work framed offered mat board for use at the spring art show," Sehr said. "So many people have stepped up to help out. It's just incredible. This is more than a school - it's really a family. Besides I met and worked alongside teachers I had not had an opportunity to meet."
Among the rooms hardest hit were the nurses' office and the chapel.
Teachers volunteered to dry the blankets for the school nurse, Katie Thomas. Others took dripping wet altar linens, stoles and cinctures from Father Tom Ribits, to dry at school or at home.
"I was the school nurse who 'flew over the cuckoo's nest' for sure," Thomas commented. "Thanks to all for the help at ground zero," she emailed the teachers.
The culinary art room sustained only damage to the floor as the ovens, prep tables and other equipment were not damaged. "Guess we won't be cooking in here for a while," Chef Scott Harris said. "But the school has a wonderful kitchen and staff that are great."
Speaking of kitchens, Sue Wilk, kitchen manager, had some of her people come in and prepare hot lunches on Monday and Tuesday for everyone. Homemade cookies and donuts showed up each morning to get everyone's day started.
By Wednesday, students were back checking out new rooms. "It's kind of exciting to be part of this," Jacob Gorski, a sophomore said. "I like the new art room location."
Other positive statements came from the teachers, as well, remarking on the unusual opportunity to work together with teachers they hardly knew.
"This is an opportunity for Cardinal O'Hara to reinvest in the building and in its future," Michael Rizzo, chairman of the board said.
Holzerland summed up the feelings of all in a letter to the parents. "I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a part of this caring Cardinal O'Hara High School family who is there to help, no matter what the circumstances might be, and regardless of the amount of hard work and effort that is needed to set things right," she said. "May God bless each and every member of our wonderful school community."