Thunder Helps Welcome Briarwood Back to School

The stark images, the flashbulb memories and the feelings of deep sadness lingering from the May 20th tornado that barreled through Moore are not forgotten, but three months after that tragedy, residents in the Oklahoma City area are on the path towards recovery and healing.

On Friday, Briarwood Elementary, one of the three school hit hardest in the Moore area during the tornado, began the 2013-14 school-year. A nearly unimaginable swath of empty land spans as far as the eye can see where Briarwood stood before the storm. As a result, classes will be held this year at nearby Emmaus Baptist Church, a large and expansive set of buildings that will provide for the students and teachers' needs.

As students reunited with classmates, teachers and administrators on Friday morning, Thunder Girls and Rumble were on hand to welcome them and their parents through the front doors. A fun, joyous back-to-school ceremony followed the meet and greet, bringing a celebratory spirit to a group of students and faculty who need it the most as they operate from new surroundings.

“It’s very welcoming,” Heather Bush, mother of a Briarwood student, said. “This is a lot of change for a lot of the kids. It’s neat to see everyone reach out and love on them… Their last day was the tornado. It takes the stress and all that off. It makes it fun. It lets them know that it is a fun year and they don’t have to worry about the past. They can move forward.”

“Their school is gone so it’s kind of been a tough time,” Jason Reynolds, father of Briarwood student Kylie Reynolds said. “(Kylie) has been really brave and she’s been really good. It’s been neat that they have all this stuff… It goes a long way towards helping them get over what happened and to get back to normal.”

Every teacher and student has their own story about May 20th, the last time Briarwood Elementary was assembled as it was today. Some are heart-wrenching, some miraculous and others poignant. Perhaps one of the most wonderful personalities at the school is sixth grade teacher Ava Wilhelm. The vibrant and engaging geography and science teacher managed to ensure the safety of the her students, but was trapped in the wreckage as the walls and ceiling came crashing down around her and her students on that fateful May Monday. With two young girls, freed from the debris, desperately cheering her on, Wilhelm managed to be pulled out of her precarious position and escape.

With that memory embedded in her mind, Wilhelm embraced the jubilant atmosphere that filled the room as Briarwood Principal, Dr. Shelley Jaques-McMillin addressed the students for the first time. The excitement that emanated from the entire building was perfectly balanced by a much-needed sense of normalcy once the students returned to their classrooms.

“This morning was awesome,” Wilhelm said. “It was different and it’s going to be very different, but it was still awesome. To me, it was a huge relief. We’re all okay. We’re going to be okay and this is going to be a great year.”

“(In the classroom) it was kind of like business as usual,” Wilhelm continued. “My first year of teaching was in 1979 so those old habits just kick in. It was good to feel that way again and to know that all of what happened on May 20th is behind us. This day, we’re definitely all moving forward.”

Moving forward and working together is an attitude that the Thunder has embraced since joining the Oklahoma City community five years ago and it is an organization that derives its strength from its fellow Oklahomans. With Rumble and Thunder Girls on hand, the Thunder wanted to show the residents of Moore that it is there to support their every effort to recover.

The Thunder has dug its roots into the Oklahoma City area, and as a result members of the Thunder organization were also impacted by the tragedy. Thunder Girl Lateshia, a Moore native, attended Briarwood Elementary from kindergarten through sixth grade, so she felt a personal connection and desire to create a special day for the young students.

“It’s just really important to be here welcoming the students back at Emmaus Baptist Church,” Lateshia said. “I really felt for the families and children that were there. It’s just exciting to be able to move forward and start the school year off fresh.”

While there is still tremendous healing to be done in Moore and throughout the state of Oklahoma in the aftermath of the tragedy, every little bit counts. All of the hard work and preparation the teachers have put in to kicking the school year off right was rewarded on Friday. Teachers gushed at the simple sight of seeing the bright smiles adorning the familiar faces of students and teachers as the new school-year began. There is still residual pain amongst families, but today's back-to-school celebration was the perfect way to return to school.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day all summer, just to see their faces,” Dr. Jaques-McMillin said. “They are so resilient. They’re happy and (the Thunder) is here and they get to see Rumble. They have no cares or worries.”