Published February 6, 2014
ATLANTA—School gym mats became makeshift beds. Classroom displays were raided for blankets and clothing. Cafeterias became restaurants serving scores of students and adults overnight.
Educators were forced to improvise during Catholic Schools Weeks as thousands of metro Atlanta drivers were trapped while Winter Storm Leon shut down roads in the area. Schools and businesses closed early. As the night went on, road conditions turned to ice, stranding even more parents as they tried to pick up their schoolchildren.
More than 80 students were sheltered overnight in Archdiocese of Atlanta schools Jan. 28 as the snow and ice turned area roads into gridlocked parking lots.
Parishes and other Catholic ministries also scrambled to serve guests, keeping doors open during the worst of the storm.
Schools take in students
Deidra Martinez thought she’d make the four-mile trip to pick up her son Tuesday, Jan. 28, in no time.
She abandoned her car to walk a mile through snow and ice 11 hours later. She finally saw the lights of St. Jude the Apostle School, in Sandy Springs. It was 12:45 a.m.
When she arrived at the school, she found her son asleep on the floor in the principal’s office. She joined him. Her husband retrieved them Wednesday afternoon, but it wasn’t until Thursday that she got her car back.
“There are so many things to be grateful for. I cannot thank them enough,” she said about the school staff who watched over her son and many others.
Every day can be a little crazy as a high school principal, but this was a first for Frank Moore in his four decades in Catholic education.
Blessed Trinity High School dismissed at 12:07 p.m., more than two and half hours early, “but it was still too late,” said Moore. Over two dozen students and adults stayed overnight at the Roswell school on Jan. 28, led by the school’s computer system administrator, Jason Podhorez, whose son was also among the stranded. The group, including seven parents, spent their night watching movies as streaming Netflix were hooked up to the school theater. Games of ping pong and basketball passed the time, Moore said.
Waffle House has a reputation of being a 24/7 restaurant where any weary traveler can find a hot meal. Students at Our Lady of Mercy High School put that to the test as the storm kept them at the school.
Principal Brian Newhall took the half-dozen students left at his school to the Waffle House around the corner from the Fayetteville high school.
Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools, said teachers and administrators made the safety of the students their priority.
“The principals implemented early dismissal procedures, stayed till the last child was picked up (if possible) and are doing what they do best—taking charge and keeping everyone safe,” she said via email Jan. 29.
Schools that stayed open included Our Lady of Mercy, Blessed Trinity, St. Joseph School, Marietta, St. Jude the Apostle School, and St. Catherine of Siena School, Kennesaw. The biggest overnight crowd was at St. Jude School, where three dozen youngsters and adults stayed, the superintendent said.
Parents were naturally concerned, but students seemed to take the challenge in stride, Starkovich said.
“Movies, popcorn, sleeping mats, blankets, gyms, basketball—kids can make their own fun and they did,” she said.
Patty Childs, the principal of St. Jude the Apostle School, was at the school overnight with 37 adults and children Jan. 28.
People who left the school hours earlier reappeared throughout the evening for shelter. One was a pregnant teacher who left at 2 p.m. Police returned her to the school at midnight when she couldn’t get home. The last arrival was Martinez who walked in at 12:45 a.m.
The school was prepared for the overnight guests. The cafeteria is a full-service kitchen and there was a food delivery earlier in the week. Bedding came from sheets used in the sixth-grade Greek festival. Kids entertained themselves in the gym, played games, watched some movies, and ran around the hallways.
“It was fun. We were warm, dry and fed. We had a lot to be grateful for and others were not as fortunate,” Childs said.
The staff responded to the crisis “with grace and a spirit of cooperation,” she said.
Parishes and others host guests
There are many stories of people caring for others who found themselves stranded.
At the Central Night Shelter, hosted by the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta, volunteers scrambled when the evening meal for the nearly 100 men was in doubt. Volunteers delivering food couldn’t make it.
But an emergency delivery of 30 pizzas, paid for by a Methodist church in Peachtree City, and food brought by the overnight volunteers from Holy Spirit Church, in Atlanta, filled in the gaps, said Katie Bashor, the volunteer executive director.
“People were calling me and asking what can we do?” she said.
The homeless men usually have to leave at 6 a.m., but weather conditions Wednesday, Jan. 29, were so bad the shelter stayed open all day, she said. The evening shift was helped by new volunteers from Phi Kappa Tau and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternities at Georgia Tech, who deserve to be commended, she said.
Marietta authorities asked St. Joseph Church to shelter about a dozen people. Father Mark Starr raided the Life Teen supplies to feed the crowd pizza for the evening. Earlier, St. Joseph School kept about 30 children overnight during the height of the gridlock, said Msgr. John Walsh.
At Holy Redeemer School, Johns Creek, about two dozen elementary school students were kept busy by one of the priests at St. Brigid Church next door when their parents were stuck in traffic Jan. 28.
Father Josh Allen joked on Facebook that he was the “head counselor at Camp Holy Redeemer.” The ad-hoc camp began around noon, with dodgeball part of the activity.
“We have negotiated dinner. Nothing too nutritious. It is camp after all,” he posted.
The students were picked up about five hours later. Two stranded adults stayed overnight in the St. Brigid rectory on Old Alabama Road, he said.
At St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta, the parish listed itself on a community crisis map as a refuge from the storm. Wednesday morning, Jan. 29, a couple visiting from Texas took the parish up on its offer of hot showers and a place to nap.
The couple visiting Atlanta for a granddaughter’s baby shower found themselves lost in an unfamiliar city as authorities shut down the east-west interstate. They then spent hours stuck as roads were closed and traffic worsened. An open 24-hour Kroger in the West End neighborhood helped them out, as they spent the night rotating between the car, the Kroger and a McDonald’s.
The St. Anthony of Padua posting on the SnowedOutAtlanta Facebook page caught the eye of their daughter and the couple arrived exhausted at the parish just after 9 a.m. Wednesday.
“They just physically could not get out of the southwest downtown area due to the road and traffic conditions,” said their son-in-law, Lee Whiteside, who lives on Saint Simon’s Island. “We had many prayers going up for them and are very thankful they are safe and have shelter for the time being. … Y’all are the hands and feet of Jesus, living out his words on the ground.”