Community came together
By Billy Coleman
County schools Superintendent
As I reflect on the last few days, it is hard to know where to start. Two weeks ago, we were hosting a business appreciation breakfast at St. John’s church. Early that morning, we decided to start school two hours later. By 7:30 am we had called off the whole day. The devastation that followed, starting with the tornado that ripped through Hanceville and lasting until late that night, was unlike anything I have ever witnessed.
On Labor Day of 1996, West Point High School was destroyed by fire. It was arson. I really never thought I would experience anything like that again in my lifetime, but I was wrong. Obviously, there were some differences in the two events. For one thing, the fire was centralized in one location. We would work all day and most of the night for a week to start school back, but we could go home to electricity, plenty of food and hot showers. Roads were passable. In our recent tornado tragedy, the damage was so widespread…homes were lost…families were displaced…food was scarce…and our entire county was almost shut down. That first day, communication was very difficult and many of us probably didn’t fully realize exactly the amount of devastation our county had endured until days later.
But there were also similarities in those two events. What I witnessed in 1996 and what I have witnessed in the last two weeks was a coming together of people that is almost impossible to describe…a spirit of unity that overcomes tragedy with perseverance and love. And that is what I pray will forever remain in my heart and mind when I tell my grandchildren what happened in Cullman County on April 27th, 2011. I will tell about countless people who made selfless sacrifices for others. I will tell of a lady from Columbus, Ohio, who traveled to the food distribution center where I was working with a carload of goods for our storm victims. She drove twelve hours to Cullman, Alabama, unloaded her donations and then started her return home. I will tell of a twelve children who got out of a van with a single lady. Thinking they were storm victims, I invited them in to eat only to find out these children had been working that morning, picking up debris and trying to make a difference. They quietly finished their lunch, loaded back into the van, and went back to work.
I will tell of standing on a stage at a Sunday night concert at the Cullman Fairgrounds only four days after the tornadoes hit, looking out and seeing the love of Christ on the faces of 15,000 people, many of whom had been working all day long to help their fellow man. These and other blessings are what I will remember… the many stories that impacted my life forever as a entire county and city, by working together and motivated by the love of God, took tragedy and changed it into a promise.
At the forefront of many of my memories are students in our two school systems, who along with everyone else, worked to help others. It is amazing what happens in people’s lives when love for self in transformed into love for others. Shortly we will be sending the graduates of 2011 into a world greatly in need of the lessons we have all learned in the past two weeks. I cannot help but believe what our students have learned will stay with them forever. There will be more opportunities ahead to make a difference in the lives of others and when those opportunities come, I believe our young people will be ready and able to respond. My prayer is one for memory…I pray we will never forget what we have witnessed these last two weeks…that we will never take for granted the many blessings we have each day and that our minds and hearts will be focused on others as much in the days ahead as they have been these last several days.
I want to thank our legislatures for making it possible for our two school systems to request a waiver for not having to make up the eight days we have missed due to tornado damage. I especially want to thank you, the people of Cullman County, for all you have done to help those who have been victimized by these terrible storms. Maybe some of you who are reading this today are from outside our county and state, but you came here to make a difference. On behalf of all of us here in Cullman County, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for you selfless service to our citizens. People from all over the United States have poured support and prayers into our county…it is truly overwhelming. Most of all, I thank God for His unconditional love and His commitment to always be there for us when the storms of life come.
Monday morning I had the pleasure of visiting ten of our twenty-nine schools. I greeted the students at Hanceville as they stepped off the bus. The expressions told me they were glad to be back at school. I also saw a look of joy…the kind of joy that comes when we make a difference in someone else’s life. Most of these students had done just that…they had reached out to a neighbor, a friend, or sometimes to a stranger. And they, like all of us, had learned a great lesson of life. There will be difficult times, but we are not alone. We have each other and we have a loving God. And together, we are going to overcome the storms of life and make this world a better place. What a great opportunity!
On behalf of the Cullman County Schools System, thanks to each of you for the opportunity to all of us to work in such a wonderful place and with such great young people.