TERRE HAUTE —
When Robert Romines first arrived at Briarwood Elementary on May 20 in the aftermath of a devastating tornado in Moore, Okla., the scene was one of utter destruction.
“It literally looked like a bomb had been dropped in the middle of that school community and [the destruction] stretched to homes as far as you could see,” the superintendent of Moore Public Schools said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He and other district staff began recovering those trapped in the rubble, but it was difficult to see students because they were covered with soot, mud, mortar, insulation and other materials.
“We located them by the whites of their teeth” when the children smiled, glad to see someone there to help, Romines recalled, with emotion. “We smiled back and started pulling kids out.”
It’s a story he also shared with Terre Haute’s SPPRAK founders — Kim Grubb, Robin Heng and Susan Short — who visited the school district in Moore Monday and Tuesday to introduce their program, do volunteer work and present a donation.
SPPRAK is Special People Performing Random Acts of Kindness.
The May 20 tornado destroyed Briarwood, but there, the damage only involved bricks and mortar. The twister also leveled Plaza Towers Elementary, killing seven third-grade students.
The two schools are five miles apart.
The district also lost a special education teacher who had left work to pick up her infant son at his daycare. Mother and son took shelter at a convenience store, which was leveled by the twister. Both were killed.
The Plaza Towers site now has a memorial to the students and teacher, with empty chairs, crosses, flowers, stuffed animals and other items.
The district lost two schools, a middle school gym and a technology center. The administration building also sustained heavy damages. Romines estimated damages at about $55 million.
Twenty-five people died as a result of the twister and hundreds were injured; about 1,000 homes were destroyed and another 1,000 damaged, according to reports. Many students and school staff lost their homes and remain displaced.
But the tragedy has brought with it much good, including people from across the country who offered prayers, opened their checkbooks and volunteered their time to assist with recovery.
Among the groups that have reached out is Terre Haute’s own SPPRAK, a program encouraging acts of kindness to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
The SPPRAK founders went to Moore and met with school leaders on Monday. They made a presentation on SPPRAK, which schools there intend to use. They also took starter kits for each school and 32 banners, as well as nearly $5,000 that came from banner sponsorships and donations.
Romines introduced the SPPRAK founders during Monday night’s school board meeting in Moore. The district also displayed a SPPRAK banner that included encouraging words and signatures from Terre Haute.
The funds will be used for counseling materials destroyed in the tornado.
The first two weeks after the tornado were especially difficult, as the community said good-bye to the seven children and the teacher who were killed in the storm, Romines said.
But once the period of mourning concluded, “We turned a corner,” the superintendent said. The focus became “rebuilding and moving forward, with the understanding we won’t forget.”
The schools, middle school gym and technology center will be rebuilt and the administration building repaired. “We have a long way to go, but we sure have come a long way,” Romines said.
He was named superintendent May 13, a week before the tornado, and was to assume his new duties in July. “Welcome to the superintendency,” he said.
The district has 32 schools and 23,000 students.
Romines had much praise for SPPRAK founders and the generosity of the Terre Haute community. “I told the ladies yesterday that what they are doing is not small,” he said. Just the fact that they drove all the way from Terre Haute speaks volumes, he said.
The SPPRAK program is easy and inexpensive to implement. “As simple as it sounds, it’s far-reaching,” he said. The program, which focuses on the good vs. the bad, “is a huge message to send to our school-age children,” pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
“We appreciate you guys and you are part of our family now,” he told Heng, Grubb and Short. “We invite you to come back in a year, to see what we look like with new buildings constructed.”
SPPRAK leaders also met with Gail Steelman, Moore director of student services, who oversees the district’s counseling program.
Immediately after the tornado, “We knew there was a lot of trauma in the district,” Steelman said. “We got counseling services started quickly.”
The schools knew they couldn’t do it alone and partnered with many agencies, including many from out-of-town.
Some students are coping well, Steelman said, while others still have a lot of fear, especially when there are fire or tornado drills.
When school started about a month ago, the district had five counselors at each of the temporary sites Briarwood and Plaza Towers students now attend. “We worried about parents and children separating that day,” Steelman said. “We’ve had ongoing services at those sites.”
The district is implementing several new counseling programs this year and has received a lot of grant money to do so.
The district is enthusiastic about implementing programs such as SPPRAK, “which give children healthy ways to cope and reward positive behavior. Anything you can do to help people feel better about themselves is a positive when dealing with the kind of stress we are dealing with,” Steelman said.
Steelman noted that soon after the tornado, district officials from Joplin, Mo., visited Moore and shared information about what happened in that community after Joplin’s catastrophic tornado in 2011.
After Joplin experienced its tornado, suicide rates went up, as did child abuse reports, school discipline referrals, unemployment and substance abuse reports — the result of stress.
The Joplin officials shared with Moore staff that Joplin schools tried to handle stress-related issues by themselves without turning to outside agencies.
“It was one mistake they made,” Steelman said. The problems were too big to be handled that way. That prompted Steelman to seek grant funds and develop relationships with outside agencies to assist with counseling efforts.
Heng said the SPPRAK founders met with many people and heard many personal stories from tornado survivors. They talked to one boy whose friend died in the tornado.
They met a school employee who survived the tornado by huddling in her laundry room. Her home received much damage, but when the woman went outside, everything else around her was gone. The woman was originally from northern Indiana.
“This town is so much like Terre Haute,” Heng said. “Everywhere you go, everyone knows everybody.”
The SPPRAK founders also volunteered in the facility now housing administrative offices and helped them organize materials that have been in storage.
“We’ll keep in contact with them. We were blessed to meet such special people,” Heng said. “We will definitely keep in contact with them and see how the program is going. We want it to be successful.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.