On the same day a six-alarm fire gutted James Monroe Elementary School, Marisa emailed her teacher a story she wrote for the school newspaper.
Her dispatch, of course, never appeared in print because the James Monroe staff and faculty, obviously, had significantly more pressing concerns than publishing a periodical.
Marisa’s story was about James Monroe’s participation in the 2014 Edison Township Education Association’s Charity Volleyball Tournament, an annual fundraiser which this year made a remarkable donation to The Marisa Tufaro Foundation.
The ETEA volleyball tournament Marisa covered in 2014 took place one month before the tragic blaze.
I wrote a column about the fire beneath the headline “People, not building, make James Monroe Elementary School great” for the Home News Tribune, from which I share an excerpt below before resuming the tale of Marisa and the ETEA’s remarkable generosity.
As her feet worked to keep pace with her racing heart and mind, Lynda Zapoticzny’s brisk walk up Montview Road became a jog. She turned a corner and headed down the side street leading to James Monroe Elementary School’s rear entrance, chasing a bright orange glow and billowing black smoke. From the tree-lined pathway, the school principal’s vision was obscured, but once in the clear, the enormity of the six-alarm fire that was consuming her 50-year-old building Saturday night quickly became evident. Standing atop a hill in front of the woods with several dozen other onlookers — mostly parents of students at the tight-knit community school — Zapoticzny raised her hand to cover her open mouth and repeated the words, “Oh my God.” Each utterance increased in decibel before enough tears to seemingly extinguish the blaze poured from her eyes. Upon learning this was Zapoticzny’s home of 11 years that was burning to the ground, an EMT took her hand and escorted her to the front of the building. Positioned at a safe distance from the inferno near her personal parking space, now occupied by a fire engine, Zapoticzny could feel the heat of the flames. Zapoticzny’s disposition suddenly changed as abruptly as the shifting wind that made the fire difficult to contain when a steady stream of James Monroe faculty and staff began to arrive. Emboldened by their emotional support and the knowledge that no one was injured, Zapoticzny remembered that people, not a building, make a school great. She vowed at that moment to rebuild James Monroe, not with brick and mortar, but with the flesh and blood of 62 dedicated and resilient educators.
After the children closed out the 2013-14 academic year at Middlesex County College and spent the next two a half school years at St. Cecelia’s, the new and stunningly gorgeous James Monroe, a state-of-the-art building, officially opened its doors in January, the same month of Marisa’s untimely passing.
The love Marisa had for the faculty, staff and students of James Monroe was boundless and impossible to quantify in words. As I’ve previously written, the role outstanding educators at James Monroe played in Marisa’s complete development — as an honor roll student and, more importantly, a loving person — can never be overstated. Cyndi and I will be eternally grateful to and forever hold a special place in our hearts for the James Monroe school-community. Many of my fondest memories of Marisa are from her James Monroe days and her involvement in extra-curricular activities at the school.
Several of Marisa’s former teachers and a couple of new staff members she was never fortunate enough to meet participated in the ETEA’s seventh annual Charity Volleyball Tournament held earlier this year at J.P. Stevens High School.
The event, which Benjamin Franklin Elementary School won, featured teams comprised of faculty members from every school in the township.
Participants from James Monroe wore specially designed purple T-shirts with Marisa’s initials in white lettering and an angel’s wings of the same color emblazoned above the left breast.
The ETEA equally divided all proceeds from the event among four charities, including Marisa’s foundation.
A wonderful letter from association president Jeff Bowden informing our family of the donation concluded with the following: “Your organization is important to the residents of Edison Township and we hope this donation will help in your continued efforts.”
As the daughter of a journalist, Marisa, who of course was free to choose her own career path, never aspired to be a writer, but wanted to be an artist (she and I talked about collaborating on a children’s book). Marisa enjoyed being a part of the school newspaper staff.
Following is Marisa’s never-before-seen dispatch from the 2014 ETEA Charity Volleyball Tournament, which she wrote as a 10-year-old fifth-grader at James Monroe for the school newspaper, and submitted just hours before the tragic fire.
MARISA’S STORY FOR THE SCHOOL NEWSPAPER
Different teams were bustling about trying to keep the volleyball in the air. Aromas of snacks filled the gym, while people went wild to cheer for their school.
At the annual volleyball tournament on February 20th at J.P Stevens High School, James Monroe School competed to raise money for cancer. Other schools competed for a charity of their choice. $7,500 was raised total for all the teams.
Mrs. Westcott, Mr. Fernandez, Mrs. Lamont, Mrs. Shepard, Mrs. Hyun, Mrs. Duncan, Mrs. Hook, and Mrs. Brian made up James Monroe’s team. Mr. Fernandez was their coach.
Four games were played at one time. It was a process of elimination. The teams that lost were disqualified while the winners kept playing. James Monroe didn’t win the whole tournament, Woodbrook Elementary School did. But James Monroe did win a game against Herbert Hoover Middle School. Elementary school through high school teams could compete. Only teachers could compete.
Even though James Monroe didn’t win the tournament, they sure felt like they did because they helped people in need.