Q&A: New EcoRise Teacher Builds Youth Resilience in Hurricane-Battered Gulf
In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma carved devastating proof of the impacts of climate change and the need for environmental stewardship into the U.S. Gulf coast. Afterward, EcoRise joined the rebuilding forces by launching the Texas Gulf Coast School Fund, supported by our Back-to-School, Back-to-Hope campaign. This effort gives every affected school free access to EcoRise programming: teaching children about civic leadership, green building, sustainable living practices, and creative problem-solving.
True stories of survival and hope are everywhere. Here is our Q&A with a new EcoRise teacher in the Houston area, Charlotte Barnhart-Gilbert, one of the Fund’s beneficiaries. Charlotte is an AP Biology and Environmental Science teacher at Texas City High School. During the Fall of 2017, Charlotte finished up her degree requirements, and graduated from Texas A&M University.
Q: What was Texas City High School like in the wake of Hurricane Harvey?
A: Many students come from struggling socio-economic backgrounds, on a good day. The storm was absolutely devastating to so many. There were stories of homeless students every day. I had one student that was so grateful to receive dental hygiene products. I happily let him brush his teeth in my lab sink. The school had a great network of resources that aimed to get everyone back on track as soon as possible. I would soon find myself in need of assistance too.
Q: How so? What personal struggles did you experience during the storm?
A: It was my first year teaching, and on week three there was this major disaster. It was all very disorienting. Everyone was just settling into the routine of the new year. My family lived on Galveston Island at the time, in an older apartment complex that already had mold issues from Hurricane Ike. I knew that if there was a direct hit that the structure would not be able to sustain the impact. So I took my family inland to my cousin’s house in Katy. I’m extremely grateful that they were able to house us and our five cats for an entire week!
When we were able to return home, the ceiling in our living room had partially collapsed and had been leaking water that entire time. There was also water that had come in from under the bedroom window. That water then ran down through the walls, flooding my sweet 90-year-old neighbor’s apartment. So we had mold from above, and mold from below. It was a mess. To top it off, the staff of the complex did not return for twelve days after the hurricane. An anonymous resident actually set a dumpster on fire to get their attention! They returned the very next day.
Since my husband is on a chemotherapy medication for Crohn’s that makes him more susceptible to infection, they prioritized the repair of our unit. They came in and ripped out the ceiling, sprayed the rafters for mold, and hired another company to clear the HVAC of mold. All that was needed was roof repair/the removal of the tarp. We thought things were looking up at this point. Then on September 20th, I received an email that we were expected to vacate the premises within five days, or our property would be removed and disposed of. Talk about insult to injury! So move in five days is what we did, with help from my husband’s nursing school friends at UTMB and from our church Moody Methodist. There is no way we could have done it without them.
Q: As a teacher, what challenges did you face after Hurricane Harvey hit?
A: Doing all of this over a Thursday to Sunday time frame only required me to miss two days of instructional time. Having all of these struggles in my own life and still being expected to be strong for my students’ suffering – the same and sometimes worse circumstances – took their toll. I was exhausted and was making up curriculum for both of my courses daily and on my own. I’m still exhausted if I’m being honest, but there is nothing to do but keep moving forward.
Q: What successes have you experienced?
A: I measure success on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes it’s the little things that get you through.
Q: You met personally with EcoRise staff in November 2017, and were the first teacher beneficiary of our Texas Gulf Coast School Fund. Tell us about your impressions of EcoRise’s resources so far.
A: After everything I had already experienced, having the EcoRise team offer Sustainable Intelligence freely to those affected by the storm felt like a godsend. I feel extremely blessed to have been able to attend the EcoRise presentation at CAST Conference.
Q: What do you feel is important in STEM education today?
A: An emphasis on sustainability practices across the board. We live in a finite world that is currently being abused.
Q: What would you like other teachers like you to know?
A: That if you keep going no matter what adversity comes your way, you’ll eventually reach your goals. I think conservation methodologies can be viewed in this same way. No matter how daunting the task of environmental restoration and conservation efforts may seem at this time due to the Earth’s current state, there are always exceptional advocates just like EcoRise out there to assist you in your journey. Every classroom makes a difference. Every person can make an impact. And a community united just might even be able to save the world.
Click here to see the impact EcoRise teachers and students have had on their communities over the years.
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