Everybody’s favorite neighbor Fred Rogers said when he was young and saw something that scared him, his mother would tell him to look for the helpers. In the days since tornadoes left a wide swath of death and destruction in western Kentucky, I have heard about so many of the people who work in our public schools who volunteered to be one of those helpers.
I wanted to take this month’s column to share with you just a fraction of the stories we’ve heard – stories which prove that schools really are at the heart of their communities.
Right after the tornadoes passed through Bowling Green and Warren County, Principal Jamie Woosley of Jennings Creek Elementary School was on a bus going through neighborhoods, knocking on doors and encouraging families to get on so they would be warm and dry at the shelter that was set up at the school. The classrooms were turned into a daycare by the teachers and staff so parents could focus on getting back on their feet or going back to work.
“I don’t know any other entity can say they played a role in every aspect (of the state of emergency) – food, shelter, storing supplies, distribution of supplies, search and rescue,” said Rob Clayton, superintendent of Warren County schools, during a recent conversation. “Much of the work that happened wasn’t instructed, certainly not by my office. People just stepped up, knowing they had the support.”
Superintendent Leonard Whalen of Dawson Springs Independent, said the reaction of his staff and teachers was much the same. Less than an hour after the tornado, he had staff members and other people from the community setting up a triage center in the high school lobby and library. His administrative team was running the relief center almost around the clock in the days and weeks following the storm.
“I know a number of people who literally, that night and the weeks after, put in unlimited time and effort to make sure people were taken care of,” Whalen said.
In Graves County, Wes Johnson – who serves as director of personnel and human resources for the district – worked with first responders to transport tornado victims to a secure location the evening of the storm. Christy Puckett, director of pupil personnel for Graves County, organized school officials and family resource coordinators to find students, identify their needs and share information about resources, and helped with the logistics to make sure the families had Christmas. And as power was restored to buildings, they opened up to offer hot showers and meals to their communities.
In Hopkins County, their schools served as donation drop-off sites where tornado victims could get necessary supplies like water, food and clothing. Staff at West Hopkins School were on the ground handing out warm meals in neighborhoods where they had lost power and all of the food in their refrigerators. At Southside Elementary School, teachers were texting Principal Erika Stark immediately after the tornado asking how they could help. They got generators brought to the school the next day so they could start offering hot meals to those in need in their community.
“This is the ‘why’ for us,” said West Hopkins Principal Eric Stone. “For six years, we have had the word ‘family’ on the school shirts. This community is a family. Where I grew up is right across the street from this school. We were giving back to this community. Whatever need they had, we were going to try to provide for it.”
In Taylor County, FFA Leaders Lindsey Wayne and Ryan Williams collected donations in class by creating fundraisers such as bake sales, went out and cleaned up fellow student and staff members’ homes after the first tornado and then went out again after the second tornado on Dec. 21 to help clean up more farms that were hit. Taylor County’s maintenance department also helped clean up homes and land that were destroyed by the tornado.
Gretchen Wetzel, executive director of the West Kentucky Educational Cooperative who works with districts impacted by the tornadoes, told us at the department about how the superintends and other school districts have wrapped themselves around those impacted by the tornadoes. When Mayfield Independent – which lost its bus garage and all its buses – started back to school, she said seeing buses from across the state picking up Mayfield students was inspiring.
These are just a few of the helpers we’ve heard about, but there are many more. These teachers and staff weren’t required to spend so much time helping out their community members, especially when so many of them were trying to get a handle on damage to their own homes. They donated their time, their knowledge and their caring to help because it was the right thing to do.
I have always been proud to be a teacher and to be a Kentuckian, but never more so to see how Kentuckians take care of each other.
It is going to take years before the people in these towns recover fully. As we move forward, I urge all of us across the Commonwealth to think about how we all can be helpers.