Bridging a gap at disaster site


AS A sign language interpreter at Bollman Bridge Elementary School, Connie Merrick serves as a bridge between hearing-impaired pupils and the hearing world. Of late, she bridges another gap - between local pupils and relief workers in New York City.

Last week, Merrick took student artwork and messages to relief workers on her seventh trip to the World Trade Center site since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. During most of those visits, she volunteered at St. Paul's chapel, an Episcopal church across the street from the disaster site that has been altered to serve as a refuge for tired and hungry relief workers.

"I have a real passion for the work they're doing there," Merrick said of the crews. "They are so dedicated. Some are not even being paid."

Merrick, a native of Connecticut, attributes her strong desire to support the crews to growing up near New York, and to the fact that her brother-in-law is a survivor of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Her determination gives her the stamina to drive 4 1/2 hours to New York, volunteer for 12 hours, and then head home. Sometimes the Annapolis resident is accompanied by her husband, Tom, and 18-year-old daughter, Amy. Sometimes friends and colleagues go.

At St. Paul's, Merrick serves meals, wakes up napping relief workers and acts as a "gatekeeper," keeping out curious onlookers and welcoming the weary toilers.

An extensive - and growing - art collection related to the terrorist attacks has transformed the chapel into a colorful gallery. Merrick said that the walls and columns are covered in bright posters and banners, most of them made by children from around the world to wish the relief workers well and offer encouragement.

"The kids' artwork reminds them of hope and life," Merrick said. "I'm touched by the art and people's need to express themselves."

The collection includes paper cranes from children in Japan, a menorah from children in Israel and, as of Valentine's Day, a flag made of paper silhouettes of the hands of Bollman Bridge first-graders. Fifth-grader Terrell Young also made a patriotic poster that Merrick delivered.

"Kids need to know that what they are doing is important," Merrick said. "It gives the workers the strength to go on. They sit on the pews reading the letters from the kids."

The pupils at Bollman Bridge traced their hands on red, white or blue construction paper, and cut them out. Some, such as Chandler Haugh, added messages. "I appreciate you," the 6-year-old wrote. "I thought that would make them very happy," she said later.

The hands were arranged to resemble an American flag. In the blue field where the stars would go, Merrick placed a silhouette of her hand and bent two of the fingers to form the American sign language message for "I love you."

Over the months, Merrick has delivered an array of items from the Bollman Bridge community to workers at the World Trade Center site, including candy, lip balm, patriotic books, hand cleaner and hundreds of supportive letters. She brings back, and shares, photos, artifacts and stories about the firefighters lighting up when they receive the children's offerings.

"It's fun to see a firefighter reading a letter from one of our kids," Merrick said. "The small things, they do mean so much."

Teacher lauded

On Monday, Karen Fedderly was honored as Laurel American Legion Teacher of the Year. "It's nice being recognized," said the Forest Ridge Elementary School media specialist.

In his nominating letter, Principal Allan Olchowski noted Fedderly's positive attitude, pleasant demeanor and her ability to adapt and be flexible on the job, which involves teaching and interacting with each one of the school's 675 students each week.

"My goal is to make them like the library and want to come in," Fedderly said. "I love my job. There's no point in not doing it well."

Reflections winners

Patuxent Valley Middle School is well represented in the PTA's arts-themed Reflections Program competition, thanks to some exceptionally talented children. Four entries from the school were selected at the Howard County competition to be judged at the state level this spring.

Samantha Lash has two successful entries - one for literature, the other for photography; Erica Szalkowski won for literature, and Zinnia Luo for musical composition.

Parting words

When it comes to Winter Olympics sports, figure skating is "it" for Pamela Butler, principal at Bollman Bridge Elementary School.

"When I watch it, I can almost imagine losing yourself in the thrill of the movement," she said.

She likes the sparkly costumes, the music and the choreography.

"I find it very relaxing of all the sports," Butler said. But don't expect to see her out on the ice performing any axels or lutzes.

"I've never been a skater," she said. "Just roller skating. I have a fear of heights."

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