RBR students come together during a difficult year
By John Burton
LITTLE SILVER – It’s been a tough year.
The Red Bank Regional High School community has had its share of heartache and adversity this school year, dealing with the impact of Super Storm Sandy on much of the area, which was compounded by the tragedy of the death of two of its senior class members.
Students acknowledge that the difficult period they’ve experienced and the school community’s response has taught them valuable life lessons – lessons usually learned well beyond their years.
“My kids are learning more this year than they probably ever thought about – things that couldn’t be taught from textbooks or on the Internet,” Superintendent James Stefankiewicz said.
This year the students have been learning about dealing with grief, compassion and responding to the needs of others, he said. “They’re going to be stronger for it.”
Sandy resulted in about 70 students and their families being displaced from their homes. The school community responded by conducting fundraisers; establishing what was called the “giving tree” with thousands of dollars in gift cards available to families affected by the storm; and holding school supply drives for facilities damaged by the late October storm.
More profound for the students and staff, however, was the sudden death of Riyadh’na Farrow and Albert Martin, two students from Red Bank scheduled to graduate next week, who died from natural causes.
The loss had the community reeling, said administrators who stressed the students’ deaths brought the community together to offer tangible help for one another and the families of the students.
“I think they demonstrated an unbelievable resilience,” Principal Risa Clay said. “Honestly, resilience you would be hard-pressed to find in adults.”
Students organized fundraising to cover the cost of funeral services for both Martin and Farrow, Clay said.
Students, faculty and staff also worked to establish scholarships in the memory of their schoolmates and have worked with the Barnabas Health System for a cardiac health-screening program, Stefankiewicz said.
There was speculation that both students died from undiagnosed heart conditions.
“You wish you didn’t have to do that at all,” Stefankiewicz said, referring to the need for such efforts. “But that one community has given so much speaks well for our community.”
“It has been a year full of tragedy,” said senior Zakiyyah Godsey, Red Bank, who was friends with Farrow and Martin. Godsey has been talking with school counselors and close friends to deal with the emotions she has been feeling.
“I had to learn to appreciate again,” she said. And from that she said she has come to realize, “you have to value them,” meaning Farrow and Martin. “And you have to share (your feelings).”
“It’s been stressful,” said senior Tom Cutillo, Avon, who counted Martin as a friend. “The best thing we can do is remember them and keep pushing forward.”
In memory of their classmates, the senior class bought and planted two trees – a dawn redwood for Martin and southern magnolia for Farrow – in front of the school, and held a ceremony Wednesday morning to place engraved stones at the trees.
Rebecka Zabilowicz, Belmar, stood with the other more than 300 seniors Wednesday, as some talked about the dedication. Afterward, she said, she and Martin were close, having known each other since ninth grade. She recalled walking down the school’s halls, laughing and holding hands. “It’s been a struggle,” to deal with the loss, she said. “You have to keep pushing through.”
If there is an upside to the feelings and struggles the year brought, Zabilowicz said, that “it’s really brought us together as seniors.”
Clay said she was touched by the reaction of students to faculty and staff. “What’s really incredible to me is that the kids will support us,” she said, talking about how students approached her and others to offer moral support. “It’s such a role reversal.”