Fire on the Alaskan Tundra

Every elementary school teacher faces countless challenges. Sometimes it's not having enough resources for supplementary materials, or having a few difficult parents, or having a school system become too focused on testing.

But few teachers ever endure the trials overcome by Sabrina Silvernale, a special education teacher in Hooper Bay, Alaska.

One of her challenges is geography. The remote location 500 miles west of Anchorage is only accessible by air or boat. Although Hooper Bay is the largest village on the tundra, the population is just 1,200.

Harsh winds and saltwater spray beat the walls of the squalid houses. Tiny yards bristle with rusting snowmobiles and junk cars. The city says it's "working on" running water, but somehow hasn't made it happen. Large families live in small houses, sometimes with as many as eight children.

What really keeps this village intact is tradition, thousands of years of Yup'Ik Eskimo customs. The rugged citizens of Hooper Bay want to maintain their traditions, while giving their children the best education possible. A special education teacher since 1978 and a resident of Hooper Bay, Sabrina and her husband, also a special education teacher, are essential in helping so many Eskimo families realize their dreams. About 400 students attend their K-12 school.

But their inaccessible location is a minor obstacle compared to the tragedy that struck the village in August 2006. Fire destroyed at least $30 million in property and left more than 70 people homeless. The early-morning fire flattened the school complex, demolished a grocery store, 14 homes and other structures, and almost 15 acres in the village. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, but dislocated families lost almost everything. One of the people they turned to for help was Sabrina.

In this midst of all these difficulties, Sabrina's unique teaching situation presents even more challenges. "I'm working with a wide range of skill levels and ages. I start working with kids when they're about three years old. I have students who are significantly impaired and I have older kids with speech/language needs. Then I have LD kids." The fire, of course, had changed everything for the start of the school year. "Only one classroom had been spared, next to the playground. We divided the out-building into a classroom and the school administration office."

Although Hooper Bay is getting a new school, new furniture and even some new digital technology, they will have trouble replenishing teaching materials because most of the community lacks fire insurance.

"I'm missing the meat and potatoes of what I teach," says Sabrina - and for her, 'meat and potatoes' includes TouchMath materials.

"TouchMath is flexible and concrete, and that's what my students need. The skills it teaches them are vital to their daily living, whether they're at school, at the store or at home. And TouchMath works for all age levels. The older kids can use the technique too."

In recognition of the courage, tenacity and unique circumstances of this educator, TouchMath founder and CEO Jan Bullock donated a complete set of TouchMath materials for use by Sabrina and her colleagues in Hooper Bay.

"Every so often we're touched by a story about the extraordinary sacrifices many teachers make to educate our kids," Jan reflected. "The story of Hooper Bay, a devastating fire, and Sabrina's dedication to keep teaching inspired us to help."

Sabrina's primary focus now is on maintaining a proactive outlook. "What we're trying to do here is get back to some positive growth. Back to normal. Back to moving forward."

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