Gifford Students Return To Class Following Tornado
By Sean Powers
School officials in the Champaign County town of Gifford tried to recapture some sense of normalcy on Monday as students returned to Gifford Grade School for the first time since a tornado ripped through the town.
The first day back started with a welcome by Rod Grimsley, the school’s principal and superintendent.
“We’re going to start off like we normally do,” Grimsley said. “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.”
In an auditorium packed with students and teachers, he detailed some of the after-school sporting events, listed the day’s lunch menu, and wished a happy birthday to students whose birthdays fell during the week-long hiatus.
Just blocks away from the school, there are ruined homes that were toppled by the monster EF-3 tornado that swept through the area. Dozens of students lost homes in the storm.
“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,” Grimsley said to his students. “Just please stand up if you like to. How about a nice round of applause for those people that are here today.”
School started at the usual time. Students returned to their usual desks. But not everything was “normal.”
Grimsley explained that 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 said 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,” he explained. “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.”
Over in Sandy Beherns’ third grade class, students are reflecting on the twister.
“Several of the students this week at Gifford all pitched in and did something,” she told her class. “They helped out, right? So, actions speak louder than words.”
Beherns asked her class what they are thankful for…one student says surviving the tornado, another said he is thankful the tornado did not hit at night when he was in bed, and another said she is thankful all of her family and friends survived.
Beherns said they are all lucky.
“The most important things in life are not things,” she said. “Remember, we talked about that. That was one of our quotes from a few weeks ago. Can you be replaced?”
“No. Things can,” a student replied.
“Now do we miss those things?” Beherns said.
“Yes,” several students responded.
“Yeah, we miss those things, but the fact that you’re here and I’m here,” Beherns added. “That’s a good thing.”
One of six counselors at the school was in the back of the classroom watching. Social Worker Lisa Combs-Yowell works with the Vermilion Association for Special Education. She said she is 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,” she said. “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 said it is a step in the right direction. He was in his basement with his family when the storm hit. Their home was destroyed, and they 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,” Hauls said. “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.”
For now, that is enough as a community works to recapture a sense of normalcy.