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On March 3, 2019, one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history cut a mile-wide path of destruction through rural Lee County. The storm left 23 people dead. In a matter of moments, lives were devastated. Some lost multiple family members and countless homes were completely destroyed.
Everyone Was Affected
For the survivors, life forever changed. And many of those who are left picking up the pieces of their lives are students in Lee County’s elementary and middle schools. These students are children who lost friends, classmates, family members or the roofs over their heads. All of them lost the sense of security that bad things don’t happen to the people you love.
“In this tight-knit community, everyone was directly affected or knows someone who was,” says Lura Reed, principal of Sanford Middle School. The school is located just miles from where the storm took its most deadly toll.
“One of our sixth-graders lost her father, his fiancé and her best friend, who was having a sleepover with her that night,” Reed says. “She, herself, was seriously injured and won’t be able to return to school this year.”
“It’s traumatic and heartbreaking, and we’ve worked together to encourage one another through this,” explains Caroline Eldridge, a math teacher at the middle school.
Faculty and staff received training from professional grief counselors prior to the students’ return to the classroom.
“We had professional listeners on hand, and those students who needed to talk were encouraged to do so,” Reed states. But, at that early stage, she says most kids weren’t willing or even able to articulate their feelings.
Reed believes the full emotional impact will continue to unfold over time
“Something that has helped in more ways than you can really imagine are the hand-written messages, prayers and personal stories people have sent to our kids,” Eldridge says. “These have poured in from all over the country.”
But, according to school officials, many of the most meaningful messages came from right here in the Tennessee Valley, where people are no strangers to storms.
“When someone wrote that they had been through a similar experience — living through a tornado — the students really connected,” Eldridge recalls. “They don’t need all the details, but just to know that you can go through something this scary and eventually it gets better. You will be able to sleep through the night again. That’s huge,” Eldridge explains.
A Challenging Summer Ahead
“These kids and their families already face so many challenges,” Eldridge says. “This is a hard-working but poverty-stricken community,” she explains. Many qualify for free lunches. Currently, Lee County does not have a summer meal program in place these students. “This has been kind of a mountaintop experience with resources pouring in immediately after the storm. But that’s not going to continue — it can’t. I worry about how that will affect these kids,” she reflects.
Her principal echoes Eldridge’s concern for students as the school year rapidly winds down. “We dismiss for summer break next month, and that brings a lot of uncertainty,” Reed says. “One of my concerns is that when the calendar year ends, some of these young folks will need the support system of their peers and teachers most.”
“I worry they’ll feel especially alone when the notes dwindle and eventually stop,” Eldridge adds.
Solidarity After the Storm
As Eldridge explained, a note of encouragement from one community of survivors to another has the unique capacity to offer hope. There are approximately 800 elementary and 610 middle school students enrolled in Lee County, and you can help.
Send a personal message of love, encouragement and hope to them during the months of May, June and July. You can address your envelopes to:
Sanford Middle School
Attention: Ms. Lura Reed
1500 Lee Road 11
Opelika, AL 36804.
Financial support can be sent to the same address. Please indicate “Tornado Relief” on monetary donations.