By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Charise Smith, a Bradley County native now working as an elementary school teacher in Alabama, has seen the deadly effects of two large tornado outbreaks in less than 10 years.
She was living in Bradley County on April 27, 2011, when five tornadoes ripped through the county within a 12-hour period, killing nine people and leaving widespread devastation.
On March 3, she was in Lee County, Alabama when an EF-4 tornado ripped through that area, killing 23 people and leaving even more devastation. Smith, who teaches third grade at West Smiths Station Elementary School in Smiths Station, Alabama, saw firsthand how it affected the school and its surrounding communities.
“We knew the storms would be coming, but we didn’t know just how bad things would get,” Smith said. “All the kids the day before were on edge though — I guess rightfully so.”
Smith is a Bradley Central High School graduate who continues to keep in touch with friends and family in this area. That connection would later lead to students at Hopewell Elementary School raising hundreds of dollars to help her Alabama school.
Roxanne Gassaway, instructional support specialist at Hopewell Elementary, was looking for ideas for a schoolwide community service project when she found a post Smith had made on social media about conditions at her school.
“We wanted to help the children learn about service and the importance of giving,” Gassaway said. “We knew this would be the perfect fit. Some of our students had learned about the 2011 tornadoes from their families, so some of the children already had a real sense of empathy when it comes to tornadoes.”
Students rallied behind the cause by collecting donations from families and neighbors, and some even dipped into their own savings. One such student was kindergartener Anna Mae Freytag, who took her piggy bank with her to class.
Hopewell Elementary ended up raising a grand total of $630.90, which Smith said will go toward projects such as rebuilding the playground at West Smiths Station Elementary.
Smith said her school, which has close to 900 kindergarten through sixth-grade students, is designed like Bradley County’s Lake Forest Middle School used to be. Multiple classroom buildings were connected by walkways and awnings, which were destroyed by the tornado.
The school’s playground was turned from a friendly space for children to play into a veritable obstacle course of splintered plastic, metal and glass which is now deemed unsafe for children.
“We’ve had to be very creative with recess, and we’ve been doing what we call ‘parking lot PE,’” Smith said. “We can’t let children play on the grass or where the playground used to be, because it’s just not safe yet.”
The teacher said her school has seen a great deal of support from people all over the country, including people who purchased items like balls to help with PE classes. Staff and students have also received many letters of encouragement, including touching letters from students in Florida affected by last year’s Hurricane Michael.
Despite the support, leaders at the school are still working to replace lost items like the playground equipment, which was not covered by the equipment.
Smith said some staff and students at West Smiths Station Elementary lost their homes. Some lost loved ones. Some suffered injuries or know others who did.
Reminders of the tornado’s devastation are “still very much everywhere,” but she said they are “trying to see the good in things” as they anticipate getting a new playground. The recent donation from Hopewell Elementary gets the school a bit closer to its goal.
“I am proud of these students, and certainly helping another school is a worthy cause,” said Elizabeth Kaylor, principal of Hopewell Elementary
Smith said anyone else who wishes to help can reach out to the school through its website, www.lee.k12.al.us/Domain/20.