‘We can persevere.’ Students hit by tornado, pandemic find resilience after 2 traumas

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixteen tornadoes smashed through our community on Memorial Day 2019. Since that day, the Dayton Daily News has been on the ground reporting on the devastation and the work of recovery. Now, one year later, we are digging into the obstacles that remain, how the coronavirus pandemic has affected rebuilding and how communities have been changed forever. Go here for more of this coverage.


After surviving last year’s Memorial Day tornadoes, area students and teachers wanted only one thing the following fall: a nice, normal school year, with all the familiar routines and rituals.

Brookville High School senior Chelsey Shellabarger couldn’t wait for the traditional locker door slam on the last day of school — the cacophonous clang of 150 lockers as seniors proclaim to the world, “We made it!”

Northridge mother Martha Hawkins yearned for stability for her eight children after their home was destroyed in a few terrifying minutes that seemed like an eternity.

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Dayton charter school principal Victoria Simmons looked forward to providing her eighth-graders with the traditional graduation ceremony that was postponed last year.

The coronavirus has upended this school year as abruptly as the tornado did last year, re-traumatizing thousands of survivors. For the second year in a row, teachers didn’t say goodbye to their kids; students missed out on beloved rituals such as proms, talent shows and commencements. Many families are still displaced from their homes, with construction delayed by the pandemic.

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“It is definitely a double whammy,” Northridge Superintendent Dave Jackson said. “And now they are facing new hardships and new heartaches, as well as lost income.”

Brookville valedictorian Emily Brown summed up the experience of many local students in an inspirational commencement address.

“After defying all of the odds that were set by the tornado, our senior year started on time, and everything was going smoothly, until it wasn’t,” she said. “We didn’t get a senior prom, or a senior spring break trip, or one last walk through the hallways with the people we grew up with. We didn’t get any of the things that we spent the last 13 years looking forward to. All of these once-in-a-lifetime things, cancelled, by this terrifying pandemic.”

Displaced families, sheltering in place

Last year, some of the tornado-ravaged districts — including the Dayton, Beavercreek and Trotwood-Madison school districts — had just finished their school year the Friday before Memorial Day. Others, including Brookville, Northridge and Vandalia-Butler, were heading into their final week of school.

Many Northridge families are still displaced from their homes even as they are coping with shelter-in-place orders. More than 150 homes in the district were badly damaged, Jackson said, and many have not been repaired.

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The school community has been a godsend for Hawkins, who is raising eight children on her own. She and the children rushed to their basement last Memorial Day with only seconds to spare. She frantically covered the youngest children with a mattress, convinced they would all die.

“It felt like the whole upstairs was coming down on top of us,” she said. “The tornado picked my vehicle up, tossing it just inches away from us.”

The Red Cross declared her home on Rolfe Avenue uninhabitable.


“We lost almost everything,” Hawkins said. “The kids had no toys, no electronics. They got so bored.”

The family moved in with relatives until purchasing a new home in Northridge in August. The school district was with them every step of the way, even bringing gifts at Christmas.

“Our staff tends to see the kids of Northridge as their own,” Jackson said. “Many of our students rely on teachers to be their rocks and their schools to be their safe place where they go to feel that sense of value and belonging. The staff is feeling the weight of these double traumas, one more physical in nature and one more psychological — one that brought us together and one that necessitated physical distancing.”

Losing homes, livelihoods

Many families of the students at North Dayton School of Discovery lost their homes last year and their livelihoods this year.

“They have experienced trauma and fear in two very different ways — last year it was fear of a storm coming, and now they are wondering, ‘Am I ever going to see my teacher?’” Principal Victoria Simmons said.

Simmons said that her staff has risen to the occasion, helping families with tornado recovery even when many had suffered severe damage to their own homes. The academic challenges this year were far greater than last year, when students lost only one week of school.

Some of the school’s families don’t have Wi-Fi access, so the charter school’s parent company, National Heritage Academies, provided packets of study guides to every family.

North Dayton School of Discovery is creating a trauma task force to prepare for the students’ return to school.

“I couldn’t have asked for more from my teachers,” Simmons said. “They adapted so quickly to meet the needs of students, and they have been so collaborative in reaching out to each other when they needed to help.”

Living with uncertainty

Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins sees a profound distinction between these bookend catastrophes.

“Last year the unexpectedness was on the front end, with the tornado, and this year it’s the opposite, with everyone wondering, ‘Will we be able to go back in the fall?’” he said. “Last year we were dealing with tangible physical damage. This year it’s like putting your arms around smoke.”

When teacher Chrissy Shore gave her third-grade students a goodbye hug in mid-March, she expected they would be back before the end of the school year.

“It has been super hard for the kids, not having that sense of finality for the second year in a row,” Shore said.

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Local families are finding that the quarantine has brought blessings, as well as disappointments.

“We have gotten closer as a family,” said Julie Russell, a mother of two who also teachers kindergarten in Northridge. “Before this, we were constantly on the go. This has caused us to slow down and have dinner at the dinner table every night.”

Brookville mother Amanda Zimmerlin has transformed her dining room table into a makeshift office for her job as Clayton city manager. Her four children occasionally interrupt with a question about fourth-grade math or the definition of a word in Spanish. Many days, it is difficult to concentrate on her work.

“The tornado was a curveball, but this was really a curveball,” she said. “What I have learned, though, is how resilient the kids are. It is interesting how they talk about things. They remark about how things are different, but it is never gloom and doom.”

The resilient class of 2020

The uncertain future weighs heavily on seniors such as Shellabarger, who is planning to study biology at Ohio University. She fears she’ll be taking classes online instead of moving to campus. Yet she feels better equipped to deal with life’s uncertainties after surviving the tornado that destroyed her family home.

“I tell myself, ‘If I can do all of this and still have a smile on my face, why can’t I do everything else?’” she said.

Her father’s truck, crushed by a tree, became one of the iconic images of the devastation in Brookville. But Shellabarger also sees it as a symbol as the strength of her family, of her community. “It still runs,” she said with a laugh. “Ford tough.”

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The Brookville community has grown so close after the tornado, said junior Matthew Stark, that it’s especially painful to distance themselves during quarantine.

“At first I thought, ‘Why us?’” he said. “Then I realized the whole world is in this, and that because we have been in this before, we have been through it before in some capacity, it makes it easier.”

That was valedictorian Emily Brown’s theme as she delivered her virtual commencement address.

“We are the resilient Brookville class of 2020,” she said. “We sure haven’t had it easy, but, just like the heat changing the steel, these challenges have and will continue to reform us and force us to rise above, and be stronger than what we face. So, in the future, whenever any of us are faced with a daunting task, or even another global pandemic — because, honestly, who knows? — we can persevere.”

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