By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — When tornadoes hit Moore, Okla., last month with 210 mph winds, Mary A. Toomey had a connection with one particular story.
Seven second- and third-graders at Plaza Towers Elementary School were among the 24 people killed in the disaster.
“We were saddened by it and wanted to help the children,” said Toomey, principal at South Lawrence East Elementary School.
The news moved Toomey so much, she started a drive to collect loose change for the students in Moore. She dubbed the drive “Moo for Moore” as a pun, and placed milk jugs in each of the 24 classrooms so students could drop off their donations.
Toomey sent a letter to Amy Simpson, principal at Plaza Towers Elementary explaining her idea. The city of Moore, is part of the Oklahoma City metro area and is the seventh largest city in the state.
“Our students were very concerned after learning about the devastation to your community caused by the recent tornadoes. We send our sympathy and prayers for all that has been lost,” Toomey wrote.
Toomey said it’s difficult to ask students at South Lawrence East for donations since the majority of them live in poverty and receive free or reduced lunch. Yet, every day, she would see students carrying plastic bags filled with nickles and pennies.
Toomey thought the 552 students in first to fourth grades would raise $500 at the most. Much to her surprise, the amount totaled $1,420.64.
“They were genuinely generous. We were amazed and humbled to see when we ask for money, those who have little give so much.
“There’s a lesson in there. I think they understand what is like to be in need. Our children have a big heart and their parents do too,” Toomey said.
Simpson of Plaza Towers Elementary School showed her gratitude in an email.
“Your students and community have made my day,” Simpson wrote. “Today was a hard one for me. I have them from time to time, minute to minute, hour to hour and day to day.”
Simpson said the outpouring of support and desire to help “keeps my broken community swinging to the happy side of life.”
“The South Lawrence East Elementary School community is responsible for swelling my heart with joy and peace. ... Please tell your students their beautiful hearts and perfect smiles came at just the right time for me, today. I am so blessed by you all,” Simpson wrote.
The drive coincided with the fourth graders’ induction into the National Elementary Honor Society. There were 21 students recognized for leadership, scholarship, responsibility and service. Leading the drive were Neilin De Jesus, Kenny Guerra, Amelia Tonn, Tialese Perez, Julie Le, Krisna Huoth and Junieno Paulino, all 10.
Some students like Julie not only donated money from her allowance, but also asked her mother to contribute.
“I put myself in their shoes and if that would happen to me, I’d like someone to help,” Tialese said. “Our school is in good shape, but they don’t have enough money to repair their school.”
Krisna was distraught when she saw news clips about the disaster left by the tornadoes.
“I was sad and also frightened for what happened to them, that’s why I wanted to help,” Krisna said.
Marisa Boyajian, fourth grade teacher at the school, was elated by the students’ commitment.
“They are speaking from the heart,” Boyajian said. “This provides them an opportunity to learn the importance of giving back. It’s a life lesson they will take forever.”