MOORE — Nearly a dozen handwritten letters are displayed on the bulletin board in a classroom in New Jersey, each letter pinned with a paper heart with words like strong and brave written on them.
The letters were addressed to fifth-grader Akhilash Parimeru of Martin Luther King School in Edison, N.J.:
“Dear Akhilash, I go to Briarwood Elementary... We call ourselves the Briarwood Bears,” Parimeru reads from the letter.
“This is the last piece of evidence from the students,” he said. “They don't have anything to remember fifth grade. It's all gone. This means a lot to us.”
Parimeru and his class had sent out letters to every state in the nation as part of pen pal project they were working on in their class. Parimeru chose Briarwood Elementary because he had visited Oklahoma once before and his family had driven by the school.
Parimeru told them about his school and how New York City is a big city nearby. He wrote about how New Jersey had been affected by Hurricane Sandy and how his class had made donations to another school that had been destroyed.
Robin Dziedzic had her fifth-grade students at Briarwood respond to Akhilash to tell him about Oklahoma and Briarwood. The letters were mailed the day before the school was destroyed in the May 20 tornado.
Stephanie Cardoso, Parimeru's teacher, said she didn't believe it when he told her the letters she had on her desk were from the school they saw on TV. She looked up Briarwood Elementary online and pictures of the destroyed school filled her screen.
“There was a really somber mood in the classroom while we were going through the letters,” she said. “I couldn't just leave it as a coincidence that we had received these letters from these children. I had to turn it into something that my children could benefit from as well as those in Oklahoma.”
On Saturday, the fifth-graders from Briarwood met at Red Oaks Elementary in Moore to receive the gifts the students in New Jersey helped donate.
Nearly 70 students and parents got to hang out with their friends, eat pizza and grab a book or a game to take home.
“We are just trying to keep the kids' lives normal and these gifts can introduce some normalcy back,” Dziedzic said. “This is the last day of school you never got to have. This helps them look past it, at least for the time being.”
Brad Gray came to Red Oaks Elementary on Saturday with his family. His daughter, Skylar, was in Dziedzic's class and sought shelter with her in the rest room as the tornado rampaged overhead.
Gray said the their house in Moore was cut in half by the storm and they now are living in an apartment.
“The kids need this,” he said. “We've all lost so much, so to see the kindness of strangers on the other side of the country, it really feels like everybody really cared about you.”