In the last six weeks, Donna Vivone and her colleagues have learned how difficult it can be to rebuild a second home, as they continually add to inventories of items lost forever.
Lesson plans, exams, decorations, keepsakes from students long graduated and now raising students of their own. All gone, consumed in an early-morning fire July 18 at Our Lady of Angels Regional Catholic School in Morton, Delaware County.
"It's like starting over as a brand-new teacher," said Vivone, who has taught fifth grade at the school for six years. "You go to look for something or refer to a file, and you remember that it's gone."
But she isn't despairing. She and the other faculty members at the 70-year-old school are more hopeful than ever as they look to the first day of classes Wednesday.
This year, Our Lady of Angels' 320 students will report to Cardinal O'Hara High School in nearby Springfield. As summer has waned, staff from both schools have worked long hours to make the transition as smooth as possible, ironing out the logistics of having 14 grades cohabit under one roof.
The elementary school students will occupy classrooms on O'Hara's first floor, with the high schoolers shifted to the floors above. It's far from a tight fit — O'Hara was built to handle 4,000 students, a far cry from its current body of 870.
As O'Hara's faculty and staff prepare for the influx of students, they've been propped up by parents and community members from Our Lady of Angels who have organized into an ad hoc corps of volunteers.
"OLA isn't just a building. It's a family," Stephanie Cathers said last week as she helped set up classrooms inside O'Hara, from which she graduated in 2004. "And as a regional school, we rely on each other." Next week, her daughters Lindsay and Jessica will enter the fourth and first grades, respectively.
There already was a culture of parents pitching in at Our Lady of Angels, Cathers said. She and Angela Merkle have spent countless days the last few years assisting in the school's lunchroom.
"We're a family, all of us," said Merkle, whose son, Luca, is about to start fifth grade. "It's about leading by example, and that's important for kids to see that. You help if you have ability to, simple as that."
That help has translated to organizing fund-raisers at the Briarcliffe Swim Club, slinging custom-made "OLA Strong" T-shirts and wristbands.
More recently, parents have helped organize the donated items that have poured in to O'Hara's waiting classrooms: books, school supplies, even old lesson plans, courtesy of retired teachers who saw breathless news reports about the fire.
That was how Cathers learned of the devastation — at 3 a.m., while awake to care for her infant son, Matthew. Texts and voicemails filled the screen of her phone. She found a video on Facebook broadcasting the fire in real time. She made a tearful call to Merkle, at the Shore on vacation.
Firefighters fought the blaze, which reportedly started on the upper floor, for 90 minutes before containing it. Its cause remains under investigation, and officials from Ridley Township, the municipality handling the probe, did not respond to requests for comment.
It gutted the school's classroom wing, leaving little behind. A firewall separating that section from a new portion helped protect academic and medical records, which were salvaged, according to school officials.
"We all gave ourselves 24 hours to be sad," Cathers said, "and then we got to work."
Sure enough, she and dozens of other parents showed up to the school the next morning. It was a welcome sight to Susan Lowe, at that point literally a week into her tenure as Our Lady of Angels' principal.
"I took this job to be challenged, to get out of my comfort zone," Lowe said last week, remembering the shock she felt at the scene of the fire on July 18, watching seven decades of history smolder. "And, well, I certainly have been."
But the challenge has been tempered by the support shown by her faculty and the parents whose children they teach. People, at that point, she barely knew.
"To see them step up and see them so comforting to the kids and the school reminds me why I chose this profession," Lowe said. True to her faith, she said the support has been "heaven sent."
The biggest miracle in the ordeal, she added, was how quickly her displaced students found a new home. Eileen Vice, O'Hara's principal, said the plan to house Our Lady of Angels was made before the fire was even quenched.
"As soon as I saw the news reports, a flurry of texts went out," Vice said. "And I said to everyone, 'Let's go get them.' By the next morning, the monsignor was here, walking the halls."
Vice said her staff embraced the idea: Teachers could naturally empathize with the idea of losing a career's worth of materials in a single night.
"We're keeping the community together," she said. "And I think we're all better off for it."