The day after the Nov. 17 tornado ripped through Champaign and Vermilion counties, several farmers stopped by Armstrong Township High School.
They asked if they might get some help from the student FFA group to clean up debris strewn around the fields outside Gifford. Principal Darren Loschen and his staff quickly agreed.
Word spread among students “like wildfire” — via social media and the old-fashioned grapevine — and a huge group turned out the next day to help.
Loschen decided to schedule an all-school field trip for the following day — a Wednesday — for students and staff to help families in and around Gifford.
“We told the kids, ‘Come prepared; you’re going to need to work,’” he said.
They did — more than 130 strong, including the staff.
It was just one of a long list of projects by area schools to help the town of 1,000 rebuild from the twister that damaged more than 200 homes and leveled 20.
From tiny rural grade schools to large city high schools, teachers, students and their families donated time, money and supplies to the recovery effort.
At Centennial High School in Champaign, National Honor Society adviser Marian Wyatt got a call from Alyssa Greenwald, her counterpart at Rantoul Township High School, a couple of days after the tornado hit. Greenwald wondered if Wyatt and her students could help collect shampoo, towels and other personal care items for Gifford students who attend RTHS.
The Centennial group was already hosting a bake sale that week to raise money for an anti-hunger campaign, and Wyatt worried about trying to tackle both. But she sent out a text to the NHS students, and “within 24 hours, I had over 3,000 items,” she said.
“I was shocked. They got on the phone and called dentist offices and asked for toothpaste and toothbrushes. It was amazing. We had everything on the list.”
Almost everything. They were a little short on toilet paper, until Chargers quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald strolled in the next morning carrying four huge packages.
“I am very proud of these kids,” Wyatt said.
Greenwald was “blown away. There was box after box after box,” she said. “We literally filled up an entire Suburban.”
Rantoul Township High had mobilized quickly to raise money and supplies for students from Gifford. The principal and superintendent toured Gifford the day the tornado hit and called a faculty meeting the next day to coordinate various relief projects, Greenwald said.
Teachers and students reached out to surrounding communities and help came “in spades,” she said, truckloads at a time.
The National Honor Society sold feathers for 25 cents each and raised $3,000 in a week. FFA and NHS groups went out to help farmers clean up their fields. NHS and student council members delivered turkeys to Gifford during Thanksgiving week.
Other activities are scheduled through the spring: “Our plan is to not only be there through the cleanup phase, but also to help with the rebuilding phase,” Superintendent Scott Amerio said.
No one, Greenwald said, had any qualms about setting aside lesson plans to focus on the relief effort. Teaching is not just vocabulary tests and math equations.
“One of the things I hope to teach in my classroom is character and a sense of community,” she said. “This is a life lesson. We’re teaching them how to live as well, how to be a productive member of the community.”
Like RTHS, the Armstrong contingent had a few personal reasons to help. The superintendent, Bill Mulvaney, is from Gifford, and his home was heavily damaged.
So was the home of one of Armstrong’s students — and the farm of a cook at the school. Practically everyone else is related to or knows someone affected.
Social studies teacher John Neubaum led a group who went into Gifford to help an Armstrong student get his pickup truck and his mom’s car out from under a mound of debris.
“I was really amazed what 20 people and a chain saw could do,” Neubaum said.
The students also separated trash and personal belongings into piles so neighborhood residents could go through them.
“It was kind of overwhelming to see the town like that,” said senior Meghan Vinson, 17. “It made me kind of realize, ‘Don’t take everything for granted.’ It can be lost in the blink of an eye.”
Neubaum, Loschen and other teachers also agreed to be the incentives — in a pie-throwing way — for a drive led by teacher Katie Wright. Each $100 students raised gave them a chance to throw a pie at a different teacher, up to the $500 level (Loschen). They surpassed that goal just before Thanksgiving, and the Cool Whip flew.
Then Neubaum said he would let every student in the school take a shot at him if they could reach $1,000.
They collected more than $2,500 in three days — with help from parents and school alumni who heard about the challenge on Facebook.
“I had no clue how much money was coming in,” Neubaum said last week.
Freshmen got their chance last Tuesday, sophomores on Thursday and juniors/seniors on Friday.
“I broke it up by class because I was kind of worried about suffocating,” Neubaum said.
Meanwhile, one of the farm families outside Gifford quietly dropped off a letter and a donation for the FFA group last week, thanking the students for their help. The group put the money right back into the Gifford relief fund.
“It says a lot about these kids. We might be scattered, but there’s a sense of community here,” Neubaum said. “We’re rural, everything is long distance, but it doesn’t matter. We’re all together.”
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and famlies and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Click here to read more about other projects by area schools to help Central Illinois tornado victims.
Top: Gas tanks, truck parts and pieces of silos litter the fields at Beverly Ehler's farm near Thomasboro, where the Nov. 17 tornado first touched down. John Dixon/The News-Gazette
Bottom: John Neubaum, a social studies teacher at Armstrong Township High School, makes good on a challenge to students who raised more than $2,500 for Gifford tornado relief. Neubaum said he would let every student hit him with a pie if the fund drive exceeded $1,000. Freshmen took the first shots on Dec. 2. Photo provided by Emily Fultz