People, Inc Head Start -- Abingdon, Virginia
A community works together after weather devastation
On April 27 and 28, 2011, Washington County, Virginia suffered much destruction from the tornadoes and hail storms that passed through the region. Glade Spring, Virginia was the hardest hit with many of the homes damaged to the extent that simple repair was not possible. Numerous trailers were flattened, and debris was scattered for many miles. Fortunately only four people lost their lives; however, there were many injured, and most of those affected were left homeless. It will take many, many months for the families and businesses to truly recover from the devastation.
While the Glade Spring area suffered the most destruction, other areas throughout the county also received damage. There was one Head Start Center, Benhams Child Development Center, near Bristol, Virginia, that was severely damaged. Housed in an old school building, Benhams has great charm, which includes its floor to ceiling wooden pane windows. Each window has 24 panes of glass. On the left side of the building, each window had between 3-12 panes of glass broken, which was scattered throughout the classrooms. Based on the damage pattern, it was estimated that hail the size of baseballs hit the center. The guttering was ripped off, and the roof was damaged. For each classroom, there was a window air-conditioner. The grill work/filter on the outside of each air-conditioner had indentations up to ½-1 inch deep from the force of the hail. In addition, several small pieces of playground equipment were destroyed. The hail battered the side of the building, and knocked large chunks of paint off of the exterior. Due to the age of the center, it had been painted and repainted several times over its long history of being a school and a day care center. Bare wood was exposed. The three buses parked there had extensive damage to the windshields and mirrors, as well as some cosmetic problems and dents from the front of the buses to the rear.
When staff members came to assess the damage on Thursday, April 28, everyone was optimistic that the center could reopen the following week. Weatherization crews from People Incorporated helped our maintenance staff shore up the building, covering windows and making small repairs that were necessary for safety. A cleaning crew was employed to rid the school of the glass which covered large areas of the classrooms. Still the staff remained optimistic about reopening, and in the days that followed continued the clean-up.
Late last Wednesday, May 4, the staff received the news that the school could not be reopened. As the hail knocked off layers of paint, tests showed that paint from years ago contained lead. The school was not safe for students or staff, and no one was allowed in the school until corrective action was taken. With only 20 days left in the school year, chances were slim that repairs could be made in that timeframe. Needless to say, the staff was devastated. They knew that the children needed reassurance about their school and needed to return to as much normalcy as possible.
Fortunately, Valley Institute Elementary School is only a few miles from Benhams Head Start, and the process began to try to relocate Benhams inside Valley. With permission secured from the Superintendent of Schools, Jim Sullivan, plans were put in motion to get the school licensed as quickly as possible. The application for licensure was delivered to the licensing agency at 4:45 on Wednesday. Angela Farmer, licensing agent, knew the importance of opening the Head Start center, and she cleared her calendar for Thursday afternoon to make the visit to Valley Institute to determine appropriate space, placement of bathrooms, playground appropriateness, water temperature, and verification of documentation from the Fire Marshall and the Health Department Inspector. All was found to be in good order, and she recommended licensure be granted.
On Friday, May 6, Benhams Head Start Staff moved their center inside of the Valley Institute Elementary School. Two rooms that were seldom used were transformed into classrooms that resembled the originals at Benhams. The rooms were inviting and contained many of the children’s favorite toys and books. At 4:35 p.m. the principal at Valley received the license, and the Head Start staff called the families to let them know Benhams would reopen for the remaining 18 days.
On Monday, May 9, 42 students came in the front door of Valley, eager to see their teachers and their friends. While Benhams has only had two days of school, this is already being considered a success. Washington County Schools reached out to help its community. They put the needs of these little children first, and they made a way for the children to feel safe and secure, after some very terrifying moments.
To my knowledge, this quick response and collaboration between the school system and Head Start has not occurred to this extent in the past, but it is hoped that these first few steps will lead to a greater understanding between Washington County Schools and the Children and Family Services Department of People Incorporated of Virginia. Benhams Head Start students are very happy with their surroundings, and the children at Valley want to do more to help our new friends. A special thank-you is extended to Mr. Jim Sullivan, Superintendent of Schools, Ms. Francine Ivery, Nutrition Manager for Washington County Schools for making a commitment to provide the meals for Benhams children and staff, and to Ms. Angela Farmer, the DSS licensing agent, who helped secure the license for Valley quickly due to the needs of the children.