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Oaklawn teachers search for their students

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, April 18, 2012, at 9:29 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.


How to volunteer

Register with United Way at the Oaklawn Activity Center, 4904 S. Clifton, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Volunteers are asked to wear appropriate clothing, including sturdy shoes.

Church groups that want to volunteer can sign up through kansastornadorelief.com

How 88-year-old Pearl Sipult survived a tornado that blew apart her house

Click here to see the video in full screen or to e-mail to a friend.

How you can help tornado relief

The United Way of the Plains has established a relief fund to aid in the long-term recovery efforts from damage caused by Saturday’s tornado.

The entire donation to the Tornado Fund will go to tornado recovery assistance. No administrative fees will be charged. Donations can be made online at www.unitedwayplains.org/tornadofund. Checks payable to United Way of the Plains Tornado Fund can be mailed to United Way of the Plains, 245 N. Water, Wichita, KS 67202. A $10 donation can be made by texting REBUILD to 80088.

The Kansas Division of Emergency Management advises people who wish to donate to call the United Way 211 number. Calling 211 from any number will allow people to donate money, goods, service or volunteer to help.

United Way of the Plains has established a new, ongoing location for the volunteer reception center. Beginning Wednesday, volunteers wishing to help with tornado cleanup are asked to report to the Oaklawn Activity Center, 4904 S. Clifton, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Volunteers should be at least 14 years old. Some projects require volunteers to be at least 18. Volunteers are asked to bring any tools they would like to use for cleanup work.

Volunteers wanting more information, may call 211.

Teachers and staff from Oaklawn Elementary showed up Wednesday to help not with rakes and crow bars but with hugs and encouraging words.

While hundreds of others continued the volunteer effort to clean up debris in the tornado-ravaged area, Oaklawn’s school crew had a different objective.

“Find our kids,” said Marilee Kendall, a fifth grade teacher at Oaklawn Elementary. “We’ve been worried sick.”

The school has been closed because of damage caused by Saturday night’s tornado. Although it will reopen Thursday, the teachers and staff weren’t waiting that long to check on their students.

They’ve been calling students and going to their houses in Pinaire Mobile Home Park and the neighborhood all week. It hasn’t been easy to find the children, because some had left their badly damaged or demolished homes to find temporary housing elsewhere.

A group of about 10 teachers and staff members were out in force together Wednesday giving it one more shot.

Sometimes they found their students, sometimes students they’ve had in previous years.

“It’s reassuring to us to see them,” said Angela Clark, a speech pathologist. “We’ve been worried about them.”

Relief was mutual.

Jasmin and Sierra Bohn, 7-year-old twins, rushed out of their house on Idlewild to greet their second-grade teachers, Jessica Arthur and Lisa Westmoreland.

“It’s been tough,” Arthur said. “It’s good to see them in person.”

The twins giggled and smiled.

“They aren’t usually this quiet,” Westmoreland said.

Kendall tried to take care of her students even before the storm arrived.

Because a significant chance of a Saturday tornado was predicted early, she told them last Thursday to go home and work with their parents to put together a written safety plan and bring it back Friday.

She has been asking her students to come up with such plans since 1991, when a tornado ripped through Oaklawn while she was teaching at the school.

“I learned early on I needed to teach things beyond academics,” Kendall said. “It just so happened that the lesson came last week, but I really emphasized it because of the warnings.”

She has been able to make contact with only four of her students since the storm. Two of those told her they used the safety plan on Saturday.

All of the students contacted have been anxious to tell their teachers about their experiences during the storm.

“They’re excited to see us and get back to school,” said Lisa Collins, a math teacher.

Teachers and staff at Oaklawn’s Cooper Elementary also had been out checking on their students, but their school reopened Wednesday.

Thursday, all of Oaklawn’s elementary students will be back in the classroom.

“We really want to have school,” Kendall said. “We want to see the kids’ faces.”

United Way organizes volunteers

Teachers also have been among those using those rakes and crow bars to clean up debris. And other volunteers were out in full force Wednesday.

About 320 worked through the United Way of the Plains on Wednesday, the first day volunteers not affiliated with a church group were asked to register with the United Way at the Oaklawn Activity Center, 4904 S. Clifton, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and go through a five-minute safety briefing. They were also given yellow wrist bands and safety equipment and taken out to sites in vans.

“We’re a well-greased machine now as far as I’m concerned,” said Mark Stump, coordinator of the group’s volunteer reception center.

Much of the work included removing debris and reconnecting residents with items they want to take to storage.

“I can’t imagine being in this spot,” said volunteer Jessica Tipton, 21. “But if I were, I’d appreciate the help.”

Another 50 volunteers were there after signing up through kansastornadorelief.com, which is organized by GracePoint Church and Restoration Church to help church groups take part in the effort, GracePoint executive pastor Terry Johnson said.

Chuck Sullivan, 52, came with five homeless men through the church-based group to help with moving what remained of a family’s furniture from a destroyed mobile home onto a trailer.

“We know what it means to have nothing,” he said. “I’m doing God’s work. People are in need.”

Rodger Kistler, 30, was one of five volunteers with a mission group based in Tyler, Texas, helping dig through a crushed mobile home where two disabled residents survived the tornado.

“They can’t even come out here to see what is here,” said Kistler, who is from Wichita and spent months helping clean up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “We’re helping pick up pieces of people’s lives.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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