A social and academic shelter from the storm

Riella Sims and her daughter, Kallisto, with the Principal of Bishop McHugh Regional School, Thomas McGuire. Kallisto attended the Cape May Court House school while her Florida school was shut down by Hurricane Irma.

The prophet Isaiah praises God as a “safe place from the storm and a shadow from the heat” (25:4). It is a message taken to heart recently, and put it into action, by Kim and Tony Galdi and Bishop McHugh Regional, as the couple and the Cape May Court House school aided a Florida family affected by Hurricane Irma.

Nine-year old Kallisto Sims and her mother, Riella, of Key West, spent 12 days in South Jersey after their home and town was ravaged by Irma earlier this month.

Debris is seen Sept. 16 outside the Basilica School of Saint Mary, Star of the Sea in Key West, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
CNS photo/Tom Tracy

Included with the devastation in the Caribbean and other parts of Florida, the Sims’ home and neighborhood, and Kallisto’s school, the Basilica School of Saint Mary, Star of the Sea, were damaged and without power and water.

“My husband, Carter, and I wanted our daughter to resume as much of a normal schedule as she could, after seeing the damage (Irma) did to our home and the homes of family and friends,” Riella said.

The Sims benefited from a longtime relationship with their neighbors, Kim and Tony Galdi, who own homes in both Key West and Avalon, and whose sons, Nicholas and Michael, are recent graduates of Bishop McHugh Regional.

With their own home suffering interior flooding and roof damage, and the neighborhood unsafe for Kallisto, Kim invited her and Riella to come north with her to Avalon.

Carter Sims, an officer with the City of Key West Police Department, stayed in Florida to help with the relief effort.

Kim’s husband, Tony, remained in Florida as well, to work on house repairs and the opening of their latest restaurant, Tonio’s Seafood Shack Tiki Bar (the couple already operate Tonio’s Pizzeria and Tonio’s Seafood Shack, both in Avalon).

For Riella, her friend’s help is another sign of the friendship forged over 15 years.

“They were there for me the day Kallisto was born,” helping to set up baby furniture in the Sims’ house, Riella said.

For Kim, helping out the Riellas, “a family with huge hearts, who would help out anybody,” was an easy decision, as was the call to Bishop McHugh Regional School principal Thomas McGuire.

“My children, Nicholas and Michael, received a phenomenal education there,” she said, and she knew the school would serve Kallisto well.

As Riella recalled, “We flew up on Tuesday, Sept. 12, met with Principal McGuire the next day, and the day after that, Thursday, Sept. 14, Kallisto entered the fourth grade with a uniform, in the shadowing program.”

The decision to take Kallisto into the school’s halls was a no-brainer, Principal McGuire stated, calling the family a “perfect fit.”

“We’re offering solace, mercy, in a time of need,” he said, adding that the transition was “quick and seamless.”

For Kallisto, the new environment meant new friends, made fast.

“When she came home after the first day at Bishop McHugh, I asked her if she made any friends, and she responded with ‘Mom, the whole class is my friend,’” the delighted Riella said.

In less than a week, the entire school community embraced Kallisto, learning of her family’s experience, and reaching out to the Sims.

“We’ve been teaching students about the effects of Hurricane Irma, and answering their questions,” Principal McGuire said.

“As our school is an environment based on Gospel values, we make sure the students apply Jesus’ words in their own lives, in loving their neighbor,” he continued, adding that “in their welcoming of Kallisto, our students are an example of how mercy can live in the world.”

On Kallisto’s last day at Bishop McHugh, Sept. 21, students provided her with pretzels and juice boxes, and wished a safe return home to her and her mother. She and Riella returned to Key West two days later, and last Monday, Kallisto resumed classes at Saint Mary, Star of the Sea.

Although the Sims are back in Florida, Principal McGuire is “confident that this connection will continue” between his school and the Sims. As well, he didn’t rule out making a connection with Saint Mary, Star of the Sea and its other students.

Riella sees Kallisto’s experience in Cape May Court House as proof that “you don’t have to help an entire village (to make a difference). You can start with one person. She is prepared physically and spiritually to now be able to help others in Florida.”

“Even in one of the most difficult and saddest times of a child’s life, the gift of Christ’s love can shine through,” she said.