Bay teacher wins Florida School-Related Employee of Year, donates winning back to school.
News Herald - 5/27/2019
May 27-- May 27--PANAMA CITY -- When 160 mph winds tore open Merritt Brown Middle School, destroying infrastructure and ruining classroom materials, autism paraprofessional Bethany Lucas was catapulted into new reality.
For children with disabilities, change can be particularly strenuous. When Hurricane Michael rendered the Merritt Brown campus completely unusable, the school was forced to relocate to the nearby campus of Mosley High School and operate on an adjusted schedule after the high schoolers finished school for the day.
"Some of our children had to walk home in the dark. We had to get flashlights for them to make sure they were safe, and it was especially hard on our autism kids," Lucas said. "They thrive on routine so they've had to adjust-- we're not in our normal classroom and we just try to make the best of it."
Now on their original campus, the school is still operating out of portable buildings with many new faces. To counteract the uprooting, Lucas works with reassuring the students. Walking them to class, making sure they know where they are going, and remain consistent for them.
Despite extensive damage to her own home, Lucas continued supporting her colleagues and students after the storm and even today.
It was because of this work that caused the Florida Board of Education to take notice of Lucas and ultimately awarding her with the honor of the 2019 Florida School-Related Employee of the Year out of candidates spanning the entire state.
"I'm really proud of Beth. I think it takes a really an amazing person to experience tragedy themselves yet think about others," Principal Charlotte Marshall said. "She didn't stop immediately after the storm-- she continues to get supplies, she continues to get donations. Anything we need, she's on it and considering what she personally has gone to, I think that's really, really awesome. She deserves this honor."
Originally from Pennsylvania, Lucas had never before experienced a hurricane.
"I figured if our neighbors were here and we weren't in an evacuation zone, that we would be safe," she said. "Little did I know, when we walked out of the closet three ours later, the amount of devastation that occurred-- not just my own home; my friends' homes, my school-- everything was destroyed."
As the family took shelter, water poured into the home. Now nearly eight months out from the storm, it is clear Lucas' shock upon seeing the destruction still weighs heavy on her heart.
"How could this have happened to all of us? We didn't know it was going to be as bad as it was until the morning of, and every then, nothing prepares you for that," she said. "I came to the school a week later and that was very hard to see."
To Lucas, Merritt Brown is her home away from home-- where she both receives and supplies support to her students and her staff.
In the classroom, she said, some students are very good at expressing themselves when it storms, but many others are still extremely scared.
"I have one young man in our classroom who said 'I'm afraid of the wind' as we walked across the parking lot," Lucas said as she fought back tears. "It's very hard for me to reassure him when I'm just as scared."
"Many of us are having those feelings ourselves," she continued.
When Lucas was announced the winner in Tampa last week, she used the platform as an opportunity to remind others of the challenges the area continues to face despite how much time has gone by.
"I talked about the transitions that we had to make with the school, with our children. I talked about the days after the storm and not being able to speak to any of our family because of the cell phone outages," she said. "I needed to know where our kids were and so much was so unknown at that time."
Reliving the event is hard for Lucas, but no matter what happens next, her students will continue to be the source of inspiration for the hard work she puts in each day.
"The students, first and foremost, are my favorite thing in the world. After the hurricane, I was struggling emotionally and they were the reason I got out of bed everyday," she said. "I love working with special needs kids."
Lucas will be donating $1,000 of her award winnings to the district-- $500 to the district's clothing drive, and $500 to Merritt Brown's use wherever it is needed.
"I don't do this for awards. I do this because of our autism babies and I do it for the school," she said. "The school has my heart."
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