HELP organizer Terry Smithson, education strategist for Intel, talked with eSchool News Editor Gregg W. Downey on Aug. 1 in New Orleans. They discussed how the ed-tech community has come together to bring help and hope to Gulf Coast educators in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (What follows here is an edited excerpt of that conversation. Watch the full video interview at HELP Arrives.)

eSchool News: How did HELP form as an idea, and what were the beginning phases of the organization?

Smithson: Almost immediately after the hurricane, we started noticing that funds were being donated by corporations, and a lot of the products were not landing where they needed to land. A lot of donated equipment, books, and supplies were sitting in trucks or never reached the destinations that they were intended for, which was really for the kids. We saw the opportunity to pull together under one umbrella all of the companies doing these efforts, as well as to bring in even more brain power and say let’s make one concentrated effort, because we’ll get a lot further. It also really came from realizing that these children lost not only their environment but, in a lot of cases, everything else as well. Being able to provide opportunities to move to a 21st-century learning format–which was not what they had–is something we wanted to achieve.

eSchool News: What states are you mainly focusing on at this point?

Smithson: We are really focusing on as the HELP Team–which stands for Hurricane Education Leadership Program–the five Gulf states that are normally affected by hurricanes in the U.S. These are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. And all five are partners with us from the state level.

eSchool News: Then, after the germination of the idea, the first actual organizing meeting was in Atlanta, and that was in December of 2005 . . .

Smithson: On December 13th, we brought in all of the companies. We invited them to an information session to explain the concept of what we wanted to do with the team, and the team actually started working then coming up with ideas, like saying, well, if we are going to work as a team, here’s the groundwork for how we need to work, here are the committees and things we feel are necessary. So, for an example, we formed an advocacy committee, and we have some of the most well-connected folks in Washington, D.C., on this committee, from our companies and from national nonprofits, and these guys have the ability to go to the senators or congressmen and figure out how to apply for help. So, in the end, we formed nine committees to make sure this team moves forward.

eSchool News: And you have co-chairs for each of these committees, right?

Smithson: Yes, it’s a unique situation, because nowhere else have we found for- profit companies working with national nonprofit organizations within the same environment to accomplish something, and in this case, we have not only the for-profit companies but also the nonprofits, and the education press. We’ve got foundations that have come to the table, too. And foundations are like nonprofits: They’re very cautious about how they work in that environment. And because of that, the team felt it was necessary to have co-chairs of each committee–a for-profit, and a nonprofit–and that created a check and balance. Now, those 18 co-chairs form an advisory panel to the Executive Oversight Committee, which is made up of five people who represent all the segments of the HELP Team.

eSchool News: And all this is spelled out on your web site, correct?

Smithson: Yes, it is–at www.educationhelpteam.org.

eSchool News: What was the next step after that December meeting?

Smithson: We decided it was viable to bring a cross-section of the team down and actually give the members a tour and show them the devastation firsthand, because really, photos don’t capture it. I mean, we’ve all seen Anderson Cooper here countless times with CNN, but you don’t really see it until you get the panoramic view personally, by being here. So we brought a cross-section of 40 individuals down representing the HELP Team [watch “Gulf educators reveal tech needs” at http://www.eschoolnews.com/vrc/ player.cfm?v=39&f=42&cashbuster =1155319038578], and we started in Baton Rouge.

We met with the mayor to help identify ways to help the displaced students, because a lot of them moved to the Baton Rouge area. We met with the mayor and his staff and with some of the school districts there. Then we came down to New Orleans and met with the mayor’s office here, with the Bring New Orleans Back committee, and then we took them on a tour of Plaquemines Parish, which had lost six of its nine schools when the eye of Hurricane Katrina went right over Plaquemines.

eSchool News: And I understand that now you’ve organized a rapid-response team to help educators in the event of future disasters.

Smithson: Yes, we’re very pleased to announce that we have added a new element called the Education Recovery Team. It’s made up of 10 people from the five Gulf states–two from each state–who are willing to hop on a plane when a disaster happens and actually go to an area and sit down with the educators and say, “Look, we lived through this: Here are the things you should be doing”; and provide them with that kind of guidance, because it’s invaluable. Here, they had none of that. They had to figure all of it out on their own.

eSchool News: HELP represents a significant investment for the member organizations, just in allocating the time of senior-level executives to be able to participate in this program–not the least of which is your own commitment. Maybe you can talk briefly about Intel’s approach to this project.

Smithson: I had a program manager work very closely with me, and when this opportunity came along, we went back and actually presented to Intel, to the senior executives, and showed them the need to have someone lead this team. Intel was in a unique position, because we had all the contacts and–being an ingredient company–we don’t sell to the end user, so that put us in more of a trusted consultant, or advisor, role. The senior management at Intel was very supportive and immediately said, “This is important; let’s do this,” and pretty much took everything else off my plate and allowed me to move over full-time just to manage the HELP program.

eSchool News: At some point during this process, the HELP Team developed Digital Arts Summer Camps. Could you talk a little bit about those?

Smithson: Sure. Actually, it was the Pearson Foundation–they’ve been an absolutely fantastic partner, by the way–during our very first trip down here. We went to Plaquemines Parish, and here’s what became painfully obvious: There are no playgrounds; there are no shopping malls; there are no movie theaters; there are no sports complexes; there are no golf courses–I mean, everything is gone. And when you think about all these children, thousands of children across the Gulf Coast who are sitting in 10- by 20-foot trailers, packed next to each other in the FEMA trailers … they have no outlet to do anything through the summertime. So Mark Nieker, the president of the Pearson Foundation, came up with the idea of doing the Summer Digital Arts Camps. The first one was in Plaquemines Parish, and it served 100 middle-school students.

They came in, and they worked very well with the parish and with the state, and they put together a program with four class periods: The first was an English period, and the students were encouraged to write a story about their experiences with Katrina. The second period was a digital-arts period, where the students used high-end technology and computers with a program that is usually used at the college level. The adults taught these children how to use this video program, how to make movies–and their whole goal was to take the three-minute story and make a reel. And the results are spectacular!

Some of the students came up afterwards and said [things like], “This is so important to me, because I can’t talk about [my feelings] at home, so this is really my first chance to share what I really think. I can’t do it at home, because my parents are always fighting. They’re upset that they don’t have money, because we lost everything, and they are waiting for the insurance payments. So, we don’t even want to bring up how we feel. It would be a burden, so we wanted to do this.” So those kinds of comments were coming out of some of those children, showing us how important this was.

The last two periods are P.E. periods, so they could get some physical activity, and an elective period–cooking, drama, that kind of stuff. We’ve done these camps in Plaquemines, La.; Pass Christian, Miss.; Bay St. Louis, La.; New Orleans–so we’ve worked with about 500 students in the Louisiana/Mississippi area, and our intention is to roll the summer camps into an after-school program, and allow the kids to continue this process throughout the year.

eSchool News: One of the things people naturally think of when talking about disaster recovery is money. Certainly the companies involved with HELP and many others have made significant financial contributions, but that’s not entirely what HELP is all about. Maybe you can talk a little about financial contributions versus human contributions.

Smithson: If you look at the partners on the HELP Team, they have donated millions of dollars in products and services throughout the Gulf [region] and continue to do so. Recently, Carnegie Learning donated a million dollars in books to be distributed through the HELP Team. But it’s really a lot more than that. It’s also providing guidance and support. So, what we’ve heard from some superintendents is what they really need is a blueprint, because they don’t know how to get from where they are now to that new environment our children need so much. The educators say they don’t know how to get there, so if HELP could give us that blueprint, we’ll move on down that road at our pace but as quickly as we can–and if any extra financial aid comes in, that’s fine.

eSchool News: The intellectual capital you’re generating is vital in terms of how other areas of the country and of the world can react to future crises.

Smithson: Well, there really are two elements to it. One is where New Orleans, for example, asked us what kind of infrastructure would support a 21st-century learning environment. They needed to know, because they were making those decisions right now. We went back to our infrastructure committee and said we need to provide some kind of documentation so they can understand this. So the committee put a document together and sent it out. They are actually creating a much more robust document now. The preliminary one is already posted on our web site, and the other will be posted as soon as it is completed. So New Orleans’ planner used that document to make sure [city officials] had made the right decisions as they were making purchases.

The other element is to provide a model that can be used anywhere. If a typhoon hits somewhere in another country, recovery personnel can say, “Look, this model really helped in the U.S.”

Of course the players would change; there would be different manufacturers, different participating companies, and different participating organizations, but with the HELP model, they can plug and play. They can use it as a framework, as a starting point.

eSchool News: What’s next for the HELP Team?

Smithson: One of the things we’re doing is launching a funding campaign to underwrite mobile classrooms. Individuals from anywhere can donate, and all of those monies will go directly to mobile classrooms for the Gulf region–for the displaced children and the damaged schools. We’re working very closely with the states to identify the highest need. And those needs we identify are accessible at the HELP Team web site. Folks can donate to that, and we will also be listing on the web site where we donate those mobile classrooms. Visitors will know the mobile classrooms are being purchased and tracked. They’ll be able to track the results of their efforts.

Moving forward, the HELP Team is going to continue to become more robust. We’re continuing to get more help, more partners. Xerox just joined the team, for example. We’re getting some corporate partners coming on board, so we’re planning events throughout the South, to really help refocus the nation’s efforts and attention on the Gulf region. America seems to have lost some focus there, and these people still really, really need our help.

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