The students and staff at St. Rose Catholic High School in Belmar, N.J., may have lost nearly everything after Super Storm Sandy gutted their building last October, but they found an angel just before Christmas.

That angel is Dominique Connolly, 16, a junior at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha.

In the days after the storm, as St. Rose school officials began calculating the damage after two and a half to nine feet of filthy water filled the first floor across four buildings, including the high school, church, parish center and convent, Dominique began planning.

According to Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Nace, principal of St. Rose, the high school lost seven classrooms, the cafeteria, chapel, theater, faculty room and administrative offices.

“Our technology infrastructure was completely destroyed as were our art and music programs,” she said. “All of the boilers and electrical systems in each of the buildings needed to be replaced. We are estimating damages to be around $5.1 million dollars. We are still waiting on the insurance company to tell us how much we can expect to recover from insurance.”

What are we going to do?

After hearing the story of the devastation from her dad, Tim Connolly, who works for a distribution company with associates on the East Coast, Dominique thought of her own close-knit high school and wondered what it would do if something so tragic happened. She knew she had to do something to help.

“I was telling Dominique about what had happened, and she said, ‘But Dad, what are we going to do? You can’t just tell me the story and us not do something about it.’”

Through a chili cook-off, raffle tickets, St. Rose T-shirt sales and “out of uniform” passes, Dominique raised $10,000 in just three weeks to help St. Rose School.

“When something like Super Storm Sandy happens, the first thing that everyone says is that they want to do something, but what do they actually do?” she said. “You can text the phone number for the Red Cross, but you don’t really know what that money goes to help. For me, the service has much more meaning when you can actually see firsthand what your service efforts are going to help.”

School emphasizes service to others

Living their faith through service is part of the overall St. Joseph Academy mission, and Dominique exemplified its meaning in her efforts, according to Edward Kovochich, SJA administrator.

“In this event, when we had this terrible disaster, she took it upon herself as a great opportunity for a service experience where she could help mankind,” he said. “Our school mission is to teach and serve as Jesus did, Dominique did this in her mission project. She literally flew out there to present the money to give them immediate support. This was a phenomenal idea and very successful, especially during such difficult economic times.”

Through Dominique’s enthusiasm, students gave their time, talent and treasure to help students they never met, and while their efforts met the school’s service requirements, none of them really noticed.

“They never counted the minutes they worked to raise this money,” said Kovochich, “but the bottom line was just to help their fellow man and not only did they do it, they were able to view and witness this through Dominique, as she flew out there and was able to relay it firsthand.”

The decision to fly to Belmar and deliver the money to the 500-student St. Rose School was Dominique’s parents, Tim and Stephanie, who suggested she see the devastation that her hard work would assist.

“We also thought it would be a great chance to meet the students at another Catholic school,” said Stephanie. “We felt that would round out the experience and make it more meaningful for her.”

In spite of devastation, students happy

As she and her dad arrived at St. Rose and toured the extensive damage, teachers holding classes in hallways and in upper level administrative offices, and destroyed lab and technology equipment, Dominique was struck by the happiness of students and staff.

“All of the staff and students were working together to keep things running, just like they were before,” she said, adding, “Almost like nothing ever happened.”

Tim noticed the same positive atmosphere and was surprised that, despite such devastation, people seemed genuinely happy.

“The principal’s upbeat approach to the situation clearly permeated the entire school community,” he said. “Everyone was willing to make sacrifices so that the kids could go back to school.”

Before the afternoon assembly, Dominique had not told the school how much money would be presented, but explained that she, St. Joseph Academy and the Kenosha community worked together to help them.

“When I announced the amount, the first thing that happened was a standing ovation,” said Dominique. “Everyone was just so appreciative. No one knew how much we raised except me and my dad. To hear that someone in a completely different state that had never met you before has raised $10,000 for your school is something that I am sure makes you feel like there really are people out there that care.”

Students also grateful for prayers

After the assembly, nearly every single student thanked and hugged Dominique; those gestures solidified her belief that she had made the right decision to help them.

“I felt like I had actually made a difference,” she said. “Even though, to fix the amount of damage this caused was a small amount, it was something. It was just great to see how much they appreciated the efforts that so many people made to help them.”

Not only did the students and staff appreciate the gift of money, but Sr. Kathleen explained the students were touched by the prayerful efforts of the St. Joseph students.

“The students were so moved that there were other high school students wearing their school colors, talking about their school and thinking of and praying for them,” she said. “The dollars raised will certainly be put to good use, but the prayers and the good wishes that came with the donation have really made all of the difference for us.”

Each of the fundraising efforts made an impression on the St. Rose community, but one in particular was most touching.

“She had so many creative efforts for raising the money, but those T-shirts designed in our school colors with a purple rose on them really enthralled everyone,” said Sr. Kathleen. “I feel confident, too, that a chili cook-off is in our near future here at St. Rose. They loved that idea and – as soon as we have a cafeteria again – I can see one happening here. For all of us, Dominique is a reminder of the difference one person really can make.”

Dominique and her dad’s visit to the school helped the students in their recovery process, the principal said.

“For our students, it really was an emotional and grace-filled moment,” she said. “I know our students are grateful for the effort that Dominique put into raising the amount of money she did and they loved hearing her talk about her own school community, which bears much resemblance to our St. Rose community. We feel very much connected through our faith to Dominique and our new friends and St. Joseph.”

Experience strengthened faith in God

According to her parents, Dominique has always been mature for her age and compassionate, but they said this experience strengthened her faith in God and others as she called on both for help during her fundraising efforts.

“When she thought it was going to be more than she could handle, she prayed,” said Stephanie. “When she didn’t think people would help, she asked and they helped. It has changed her, in that we think should another situation arise that she feels strongly about, she will not be afraid to take action. It has certainly enhanced her leadership skills, as there was a lot of organizing and delegating done to pull this off. She also thanked everyone that helped. I think it is important that she realized that she did not do this alone and she could not have done it on her own. She wrote many thank you notes!”

The experience has made Dominique’s faith much stronger and she believes that while things can be tragic and difficult, everything happens for a reason.

“God lives and works through all of us, and I do feel as though he was with me every step of the way,” she said. “Doing this project makes me want to continue to do other types of missionary work. Not for the feeling that I get for doing something good, but to be able to make others happy in a time that is hard for them in their life.”