By Crystal Graham
(This is the second installment in a six-part series on The Valley Responds, an effort that links the Shenandoah Valley with residents of Long Beach, Miss.)
In Long Beach, Miss., children celebrated Halloween just like most children here in Virginia.
At school, the children were outside getting their faces painted – with witches and pumpkins and other Halloween favorites.
The kids went from station to station taking part in Halloween traditions.
You may have never guessed that many of these children were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in August, and many still leave school each day to live in tents or campers or trailers.
And yet, on Friday, the only things on these children’s minds was if they had room in their bellies for another pumpkin-shaped cookie, and if their parents would let them have another.
At the private St. Thomas School, classes aren’t exactly back to normal, but they are back in session.
Their original school was demolished. All that remains is a heap of brick and paper and cinderblock.
Untouched, however, is a sign out in front of the school, only feet from the pile of rubble.
St. Thomas, however, is back in business – after taking over an old skating rink farther from the coastline and virtually untouched by the hurricane.
“It was a gigantic effort to reopen,” said Elizabeth Fortenberry, the principal of the St. Thomas School. “We went from skating rink to school in 18 days.”
Before Katrina, St. Thomas had 273 students – 236 students returned.
“Some will return in a year or two,” said Fortenberry, pausing to tell a child how much she liked her face paint – she had chosen a black cat. “Some will never return.”
Like the private St. Thomas School, public schools are also open again on a limited basis, as teachers and others try to put their own lives back in order.
A wonderful day
It wasn’t just the children enjoying the Halloween festivities on Friday. Parents and teachers and other community leaders were taking part in the festivities as well.
Stella Wolf, a Long Beach resident, and parent of 4-year-old twins Victoria and Isabel, and 6-year-old Daniel, stood inside the fence at St. Thomas, watching her kids whir by as they delighted themselves with musical chairs and such.
Victoria had a witch painted on her face; Isabel chose a pumpkin.
While the children took part in some lighthearted fun, the importance of the school itself wasn’t lost.
“The city revolves around this school almost,” Wolf told The Augusta Free Press. “When it opened, it was when all the kids came back, and we started seeing the community come together again, and it was a wonderful day.”
Wolf and her husband work in the medical field, so they both had to stay in Long Beach for the storm. And while they were willing to stick it out, they did send their kids out of town to stay with family.
Wolf was lucky – her home suffered minor roof damage and flooding. Everything outside was also swept away by Katrina. But that pales in comparison to many other residents of Long Beach.
The storm isn’t something that Wolf will ever forget.
“It was very scary,” she said. “I’m glad my kids weren’t here. I’m glad I made that choice.”
Her children, however, weren’t so happy that their parents had put their lives in jeopardy that fateful day in August.
Wolf’s son, Daniel, “said to us when we talked to him later, ‘Mommy, I thought you and Daddy were going to die in the hurricane.’ It just made me cry,” Wolf said.
“I didn’t even worry about that. I just thought he knew we were going to be OK,” Wolf said.
“If I had a personal choice, I wouldn’t stay,” she said, in retrospect. “No. Never. Never again.”
Breaking the news
Wolf was happy to share the news with her children that somehow their home had been spared the worst by Katrina.
“They were so worried because their sleep mats were at St. Thomas, and they had just finished these elbow-macaroni things, so they were worried that the hurricane had blown away their sleep mats and these hat things,” she said.
“It’s smaller in their minds, thank goodness.”
Taking a break
While the Wolf family was spared the worst of Katrina, its devastating impact can still be seen all around them.
“It’s depressing,” Wolf said. “So many of the homes that I’ve known all my life are not just gone … there’s not even a vision of it, a slab. Our landmarks are gone, my high school, everything …” she said, her voice trailing off.
“It’s very sad,” she continued. “We actually left town for three or four days, the kids and I and my husband. It’s just too much mentally.”
Can we make it out of this? she wondered to herself at times.
“We just had to take a break for a little bit,” she said. “And I came back, and now I feel so much better.”
A sports-minded community
Closer to the Gulf’s edge, and near the old St. Thomas School, two city parks were also impacted by the storm – Magnolia Park and City Park.
“A group from Florida emphasized to us how important it is for kids to get back to recreation as soon as possible,” said Bob Paul, the parks and recreation director for Long Beach, who wears more than just one hat these days.
In addition to his parks and rec duties, he’s been working at a distribution center to see that returning Long Beach residents have everything they need.
But more than anything, his mind has been on the children.
The fall baseball season had to be scrapped. Rec leagues are on hold.
“It’s been very difficult not being able to give the kids what they need,” said Paul.
The Valley Responds, an outreach group hailing from the Shenandoah Valley, has been working with the Long Beach parks and recreation department to help get things up and running again at the city parks – and even has offered its Camp Responds tent for some three-on-three basketball.
Paul hopes that the combined efforts will have things rolling again by spring.
“I want them (children) to at least have a semi-normal routine,” he said, standing just outside the two parks. “We haven’t taken a step back. We’ve been moving forward since day one.”
A new beginning
For the St. Thomas School children, the Halloween party was one step toward normalcy.
“We usually have a huge fall festival,” Wolf said. “That’s our biggest fund-raiser of the year. So obviously, it’s not this year at a time when we need it. So we made a mini, small carnival.”
While it wasn’t the huge fall festival Long Beach was known for, it was a beginning.
“The kids have the joy back in their hearts,” she said. “It’s back.”
And for the volunteers that made it happen, well, that brings tears to Fortenberry’s eyes even today.
“It’s unspeakable,” said Fortenberry, taking a break from administrative duties. “The people who have reach out to us makes you realize that they are returning all the reaching out that we have done in the past.”