LAWRENCE — The 350 pre-schoolers and kindergartners at the Breen School are among the littlest victims of the natural gas fires and explosions of Sept. 13.
Like most of South Lawrence, they and their families have been left without heat and hot water in their homes or displaced to one of three trailer parks that have opened in city parks, with the look and feel of refugee camps. More than that, Breen's toddlers have been evacuated from their school three times over the last six weeks, when the stench of gas blew along Osgood Street. During one evacuation, they were bused to other schools.
So the Breen School was the obvious choice when leaders of the Lawrence Teachers Union and its state and national affiliates began planning to distribute winter caps and scarves to every student in one of the south side schools whose students have been affected by the disaster.
The caps and scarves arrived Thursday morning, along with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Beth Kontos, the president of the union's Massachusetts chapter; and Frank McLaughlin, who leads the city chapter. The AFT, with 1.7 million members, is the nation's second largest teachers union.
“Every day, it's been a different story,” McLaughlin told about 20 union leaders and teaches who met in a hallway to discuss how they've tended to the needs of their students over the last few weeks, including taking up collections, staffing shelters that opened in the Partham and Arlington schools and watching out for the children who are bringing the new stresses of home into their classrooms. “The teachers have risen.”
The group then tended to the next need they identified, going classroom-by-classroom in the three-story, century-old building to hand out the gloves and hats, joined by Weingarten, who sipped from a Starbucks coffee cup as she followed Breen's principal, Margarita Amy.
In teacher Jen Cahill's class, Winegarten sat in a circle of pre-schoolers and placed a red scarf around the neck of the first to approach her, a 4-year-old named Alexis. He looked a little bewildered by the gift, returned to his seat and a moment later got up and walked back to Weingarten.
“I want blue,” he told her.
Weingarten smiled broadly and obliged. A girl named Ema, wearing a pink tutu, got the next scarf, followed by a boy named Ramon.
Walking to the next classroom, Principal Amy emphasized that many of Breen's faculty and staff also have been affected by the natural gas disaster.
One is Holly Hager, who has been heating her Phillips Street home with electric headers and heating water for washing with a four-gallon electric tank.
“It takes a toll on you after a while,” Hager said. “This past weekend when it rained, it was a challenge to stay warm.”
Weingarten joined another circle of students sitting on a rug in Hager's classroom and read “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” a short story about a spider that bounces from animal to animal in a barnyard. She read with gusto to the rapt 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, leading them in the sounds of the barnyard as she introduced the animals, baying like a horse, quacking like a duck, mooing like a cow and cock-a-doodle-doing like a rooster. Then she pulled the scarfs and hats out of her bag, placed them around the small necks or on tiny heads and left for the next classroom, still sipping on the Starbucks.
“It does take a village,” Weingarten said between the classrooms. “You have a big job to ensure the joy and rigor and sense of community.”