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Students at West Bladen High School rush to help storm victims

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Reflections on West Bladen's Relief Efforts
Valerie Newton

It started on Sunday morning at 8:30 and hasn't stopped. The donations continue to come in at West Bladen High School for victims of the April 16 tornados in Bladen County.

With a simple phone message sent to parents and students of West Bladen High School, principal Todd Finn started the ball rolling. Within 15 minutes of receiving the phone message asking for items to assist families that were affected by the tornado, West Bladen senior Brittany Brisson showed up at the school with a box of clothes. She said that she was on her way to work but would come back later that day to help. Brittany was the first among many in Bladen to join hands and hearts to answer the call for help. And the call for help spread as quickly as the tornados themselves.

Members of the West Bladen High school community arrived with armloads of supplies. By 1 pm the gym floor was covered with clothes, bottled water, canned goods, school supplies, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and even a few strollers and high chairs. Students that came to help soon realized they needed a plan. Seniors Tera Richardson, Kyle Taylor, and Brittany Brisson began sorting the items into groups, and taking their lead, West Bladen staff followed suit. Once the items were sorted, care boxes were filled with a variety of food and toiletry supplies.

At this point, West Bladen was hit with their first challenge. Now that they had collected, sorted, and boxed all these supplies, how were they going to get them to the people in need. The Bladenboro Fire Department announced over their firetruck loudspeakers while driving through Bladenboro that victims of the tornados could pick-up relief supplies at West Bladen High School. The only problem was that most of the families had lost not only their homes but their vehicles as well. They could not get to the school.

Hearing this news, the students knew it would be up to them to get the supplies to the families. "And the next thing I know, I'm standing in a line with other people passing care boxes onto an activity bus" said Finn. The students had summoned a school bus driver to "move that bus'" and the problem of getting the supplies to the families was met. West Bladen would deliver the boxes directly to the hardest hit area and families in the mobile home communities of Bladenboro.

In route to Highway 242, Finn saw a hispanic family standing along the side of the road looking at what was their home. The tornado had completely destroyed it. The activity bus stopped to offer help to the family. However, the family spoke little to no English and Finn spoke little to no Spanish. Through hand getures and simple words the family only asked for something to drink. The students invited the family onto the bus and allowed them to take what they needed. They only took water.

When the bus arrived at the mobile home community, the students and staff were not prepared for what they saw. Complete devastation to many of the homes, while others were scattered about in pieces. And there, emerging from the rubble were several teenagers walking toward the bus. Finn didn't know before coming to the mobile home park, but these teenagers walking toward the bus were his very own students at West Bladen. This was their home. The place that they lived. And now it was gone. "There were no words spoken, just long hugs and embraces of love between those teenagers, myself, and the volunteer students" said Finn.

As fast as the bus was filled with the care boxes, it was just as quickly unloaded. Students began walking through the devastation handing out the boxes to families, stopping along the way to offer hugs and words of encouragement.

By the time the activity bus had arrived back at West Bladen, the word had spread throughout the county about the relief efforts. People were standing outside the school to donate supplies. A local church came by with hotdogs to feed the staff and students at the school. Once again, the gym floor was covered with donated items and the sorting and boxing started all over again. The school worked late into the night Sunday packing care boxes and filling the activity bus a second time.

By Monday morning area businesses were calling the school to offer their assistance. Lowes Home Improvement store in Lumberton donated a pallet of bottled water. Dominos Pizza brought pizzas to the school for the student volunteers. The IGA donated food items for the care boxes. WalMart in Elizabethtown donated hygiene products. And once again the gym floor was covered with donated items. Senior Tera Richardson said the gym was filled "at least three times over" from all the donations. "There were people everywhere helping, sorting, boxing" said Richardson. "We were making to-go plates of spaghetti for families. We were making sandwiches to take to the emergency workers. We figured if we kept the fire and police happy with food, then we'd have a better chance of being let into the damaged areas to help the families" Richardson said with a smile.

Monday afternoon brought a call from Rev. Dr. Bruce Cannon of the Bladen Baptist Association offering help. He and a group of retirees arrived at West Bladen with trucks to load and transport the supplies to families. Bladen Community College sent over their nursing students to help sort clothes. The JROTC at West Bladen came to fold clothes. Students gave up their day out of school to help with the relief efforts. And the efforts continued into Tuesday.

Many students gave up their lunch time and peer help time on Tuesday to assist with the sorting and boxing. The nursing students from BCC came back to continuing helping. By Tuesday afternoon the JROTC had perfected the art of folding. A parent from East Bladen High School, Renee Bordeaux, spent all day Tuesday working to help. And even came back to the school on Wednesday to continue helping. No more was it about West Bladen High School. It was about Bladen County. Senior Tera Richardson was particulary touched that day when the students again loaded up and headed back over to the damaged areas. Their mission this time was to hand out stuffed animals to the young children who lost their home. For these children it was the only thing that brought a sense of comfort "The little children were so sweet and so thankful" said Richardson.

Most of the supplies have been delivered to victims of the tornados as of Wednesday morning. With canned and non-perishable food that was donated late Tuesday the school has created a food pantry. They are going to call it "The Mustard Seed", a parable taken straight from the Bible. As Finn said, "I simply brought the idea to the table. It was a mustard seed and the students took it and grew it into a tree."

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