Gifford students back in class following tornado

Nov 25, 2013

Rod Grimsley, the principal and superintendent at Gifford Grade School, leads his students in the Pledge of Allegiance on Nov. 25, 2013.
Credit Sean Powers/ Illinois Public Radio
Students at Gifford Grade School returned to class Monday, a week after a tornado ripped through the Champaign County town. IPR’s Sean Powers was there as school officials tried to recapture some sense of normalcy.

The first day back starts with a welcome by Principal and Superintendent, Rod Grimsley.

“Alright, let’s talk for just a moment. We’re going to start off like we normally do. We’re going to do a few announcements, just to let everyone know what’s going on and try to have it like a regular school day.”

Grimsley talks about some of the afterschool sporting events, lists the day’s lunch menu - chicken nuggets, mash potatoes, and an apple…and wishes happy birthdays.

“First grade, Ralph Jones. Happy Birthday to all of you guys that we missed last week.”

It’s incredible the school is still standing. If you walk about two blocks away, you’ll find homes toppled by the monster EF3.

“If you were directly affected by the tornado last week and you’ve had to move, would you please stand up so we could see who you are. Just please stand up if you like to. How about a nice round of applause for those people that are here today.” 

Grimsley tells his students water fountains and sinks are shut off, but there’s a portable washing station in the bathroom and bottled water in each classroom. Also, the old gym where students have lunch has been transformed into an area where volunteers are giving out supplies to people in need. Speaking in his office after the assembly, Grimsley says 45 of his students were displaced by the storm.

“We’re going to do just some whole classroom discussions first, and then if there’s individual kids or groups of kids that want to sit down and talk, then we’ve got the counselors available. As far as what we get done academically, I’m not quite sure. Socially we got to get the kids back to where they’re ready to be able to do something academically.”

“Several of the students this week at Gifford all pitched in and did something…they helped out, right They helped out, right? So, actions speak louder than words….”

Third grade teacher Sandy Beherns begins her class discussing the storm. Beherns asks her students what they’re thankful for…one student says surviving the tornado….another student says he’s thankful the tornado didn’t hit at night when he was in bed….and another says she’s thankful all of her family and friends survived. Beherns says they are all lucky.

“The most important thing in life are not things. Remember, we talked about that…that was one of our quotes from a few weeks ago. Can you be replaced?”

KIDS: “No. Things can.”

BEHERNS: “Now do we miss those things?”

KIDS: “Yes.”

BEHERNS:"Yeah, we miss those things, but the fact that you’re here and I’m here. That’s a good thing.”

One of six counsellors at the school is in the back of the room watching. Social Worker Lisa Combs-Yowell works with the Vermilion Association for Special Education. She says she’s going to pay close attention to how these kids are doing.

 “I’ll be in close contact with the teachers because we don’t know these kids super well. So, seeing if they’re seeing any changes in the kids, then obviously they know what’s happening.”

Coming back to school won’t make everything right, but parent Travis Hauls says it’s a step in the right direction. He was in his basement with his family when the storm hit. Their home was destroyed, and they’ve had to re-locate to Rantoul. One of his kids attends Gifford Grade School.

“Getting our daughter back to school was probably the biggest thing, just trying to get some of the things that they had that they lost replaced. You know, their toys, some of their clothes. But I don’t think we’re quite back to normalcy, but at least having a place where we can go of our own right now.”

And for now, that’s enough as a community works to recapture a sense of normalcy.