“Look for the helpers,” is sound advice we have come to rely on in the aftermath of tragedy. The phrase originated from Nancy McFeely Rogers, but her words were later popularized by her son, Fred Rogers, in his book, “Mister Rogers Talks with Parents.”
We tell our children to look for the helpers in circumstances that are too complex for them to understand, too difficult for us to explain or, in many cases, both. Kentucky has had more than its fair share of tragic natural disasters in the last few months, from the historic Western Kentucky tornadoes in December 2021 to the record-breaking Eastern Kentucky floods in July.
Team Kentucky is fortunate to have an abundance of helpers, including the brave heroes from the Kentucky National Guard, Kentucky Emergency Management, Fish and Wildlife and the first responders from across our commonwealth who volunteered their time and resources. But as a new school year begins, Gov. Beshear and I want to focus on one group that deserves our eternal respect and gratitude: Kentucky’s schools. On a regular day, our schools are a lifeline, and teachers are the heartbeat of their communities. In times of tragedy that takes on a whole new meaning. Schools are our safe havens, and the people in them are our helpers.
The looks of despair on Kentuckians’ faces after these disasters is something I will never forget, but I found hope in the helpers from our schools. After the tornadoes, as Pennyrile and Kentucky Dam Village state parks filled up with families seeking temporary housing, we found ourselves days away from the holiday season. A group of teachers from Marshall County went door to door collecting Christmas wish lists from the displaced families to ensure that kids who lost everything had something to celebrate.
Shortly after the flooding, the Governor and I visited Floyd County. One of their schools became a makeshift laundromat where school leaders washed clothes. During my visit, I ran into Floyd County’s superintendent as I was touring the damage; she was personally delivering meals to the homes of her students.
Walking into Letcher County High School gave me cold chills. The gym was packed with donations and volunteers. It was busier than a Best Buy on Black Friday. I met Harley, a 2022 Letcher County High School graduate who was about to head off to college. She shared stories of how she and her neighbors formed human chains in rushing water and kayaked to houses to save people who were stranded. Harley graduated high school just six weeks before this. I also met a school group from Ashland, a three-hour drive from Whitesburg, who were packing supplies and working like it was their hometown.
While the damage from these events in Western and Eastern Kentucky is unprecedented, the work being done by our educators is not. Our schools opened their doors to serve, and our teachers, as they always do, answered the call.
It is undeniably true that there are many, long overdue policy and structural changes needed in the teaching profession, like better pay, manageable class sizes and a normal workload. I will continue fighting for those things every day. What our teachers also deserve – outside of legislation and budget improvements – is to have their support reciprocated. A thank you email, a kind word when you see them, an offer to volunteer in their classroom or a positive social media post do not require bold action or cost anything but will make a huge difference to a stressed-out teacher.
Team Kentucky, as we begin a new school year, let’s take Mr. Rogers’ advice one step further: Let’s rededicate ourselves to helping the helpers.
Coleman is Kentucky’s 58th lieutenant governor. She spent 10 years as a teacher, basketball coach, instructional coach and assistant principal prior to being selected as Gov. Andy Beshear’s running mate.