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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Oaklawn teachers search for their students

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

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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