Chautauqua: Working Together

by Cynthia McCauley, director and contributing author, In the Aftermath of the Storm

Chautauqua is an Iroquois word meaning, ‘working together.’  Founded on the premise of learning by working together in service to others, Chautauqua Learn and Serve Charter School strives to emulate, on a pocket-sized scale, our distinguished parent organization, the Chautauqua Institution near Buffalo, NY. 

Entering the gates of the Chautauqua Institution one recognizes immediately a parallel universe.  Its ideals were planted and nurtured in the Utopian Era and continue to grow. The Institution envelops your senses with a shared commitment to ‘inspire the best of human values.’ This, too, is our lofty goal. Perhaps laughable, given we are a tiny facility attended by young adults with disabilities,  but walking up the driveway of our Chautauqua on a school day, surrounded by the sublime art of Heather Parker, many beautiful flowers, and the smiles and spirit of the Chautauqua students and their gifted Bay High School mentors, a sense of righteous purpose elevates all. It is both a place and an inspiration.

On October October 11, 2018, cutting a narrow way out the back door of our home with edge clippers, my husband, Carroll, and I finally made it through the tree fallen forest of our driveway to the street. The scene was apocalyptic. Lucky enough to have cellphone carriers with service, Carroll and I took separate paths and made a way to our work. He went to his office; I worked my way to school. Usually, it’s a 30-minute walk. This day it took three hours. Gasps, fear, and panic filled the time. The city was devastated. The brick building was crumbling. Could anything be left of our little wooden schoolhouse?  And, if not?Turning off 11th Street to Magnolia Avenue my heart was pounding. I could see in the distance the metal awning over the deck curled to ribbons. Closer, I saw most shingles gone from the roof. A large tree impaled the plate glass window of the front porch. Through the tangle of trees and branches, I noticed a door dangling in the breeze.

Arriving at the house that serves as the school’s main building the day after Michael, director Cynthia McCauley was greeted with utter chaos and destruction. Image by Cynthia McCauley

I struggled to get to the double-doors of a classroom opening onto the deck. Always locked at night by a deadbolt, these French doors were somehow separated. The bottom hinge was ripped from the door frame.  The top hinge held. Through this flapping door, I entered the school.

The painted tongue and groove ceilings were buckled and dripping. Torrential rains of Hurricane Michael puddled across the old plank floors. Rain filled the cauldron shaped punch bowl, the orange plastic Jack-O-Lantern chip bowls, and the giant silver metal tub for apple bobbing, decorations in waiting for our annual Halloween Party; just another bright spot in the lives of our disabled students stolen by Hurricane Michael. 

Mustering all the agility and nimbleness a senior citizen can deploy, I made my way over, under, around and through the massive snarl of trees, branches, metal, trash, shingles, boards, and more to survey the small campus.

The deck, the ramps, the railings, the gazebo, the fence, the power poles, the greenhouse, the storage shed—everything was ripped apart by wind or crushed by more trees than I knew were there.  The good news was obvious, the schoolhouse and two of the three portable classrooms were—damaged, but standing!  With some work, we could continue.

In black garbage bags, I dragged the dripping tubs of ice cream and party-ready packs of hot dogs from the freezer to the curb, making myself first do the job I had to do. Next, I did the job I was anxious to do; I contacted the staff. I just wanted to ask them to come to school when they could. We would ‘get started!’ Sending a group text had the feel of putting a group message in a bottle and sending it out to sea. Who had cell service? Who had the power to charge their phone? Who could get out of their driveway? Who was even in town?

My phone started ringing with some answers. The next day Carissa came smiling up the school driveway, then Jimmy, and then Heather.

Heather started contacting students with her cellphone and making a spreadsheet the old-fashioned way, a yellow pad and a ruler.  Carissa was scrubbing the floors with bleach, and Jimmy was picking through the railing trying to salvage any usable pieces when an unknown van pulled up. It was so loaded down; the wheels weren’t visible. It was my son-in-law, Chuck, with a van load of supplies from the Sunrise Rotary Club of Lafayette, Indiana. In no time, he had an industrial folding ladder and giant blue tarps next to the house. He headed for the roof. 

So early in the post-hurricane process, he had to use his persecutor’s badge to enter Bay County. As for me, I sent messages to the boards of both our programs and started looking for roofers and debris haulers.  We wanted to be the first school up and running. It was starting to feel like we could.

With no running water or electricity, we sustained ourselves with the bottles of water and graham crackers we keep for the needy when we hand out trolley tokens.

Then one day we heard a loudspeaker. It was the Red Cross. Of all the work Chautauqua proudly does for the needy, this was our first experience on the other side of the equation. It was wonderful and humbling. We each walked away with tears in our eyes as we carried our plates of food. 

While no one called them to come work, slowly our students started showing up to help. There is nothing more therapeutic than talking about your storm experiences and, as our name states, “working together.”

Four days before we were about to reopen for the school year, most of our students and all the staff were there and working hard—Heather Parker, our artist, called to see if we needed any volunteer help.  We said, ‘signs, signs of cheer.’ This she did with her usual skill.

Image by Cynthia McCauley

We officially opened the school on November 7, but we were all there on November 5.  Staff held signs, ‘We are Family,’ ‘Find something that makes you happy and use it to make others happy,’ and more. Two panels of plywood fill the space of the plate glass window with, “Can’t Control It Chautauqua, Roll with It.” The facility was pasted, duck taped, and nailed together with love—and it held.

Amid the damage,  and it was extensive, it escapes no one that the images that inspire us were totally untouched—the giant murals of the grand places of the Chautauqua Institution. The Hall of Philosophy where ideas are presented, Bestor Plaza where ideas are discussed,  and Chautauqua Park where new knowledge is processed with the evening sunset, these murals had not a scratch. Even the mural of the Miller Bell Tower, a symbol of ‘knowledge for all,’ stood with remarkable presence as the portable to which it was attached was smashed by a tree. Chautauqua Learn and Serve School is truly both a place and an inspiration.

Learning by working together in service to others’ was and is leading us through this trauma.  There is much need for our service to others in the community. As we volunteer in numerous places across the county and the world, the disabled and gifted working together, we are, as our lofty goal requires, “inspiring the best of human values.”