The lower level gymnasium at St. Croix Central Elementary School in Roberts was packed tightly with current students, last year’s fourth-graders, staff, community members and those who make up “SCC Strong” on Friday, April 25, as they celebrated “One Year Later.”
Wednesday, April 30, marks the one-year anniversary of the elementary school blaze, which destroyed parts of the school and displaced students and staff to Rolling Ridges Girl Scout Camp near Hudson for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year. Justin Nelson, 26, of Roberts, was sentenced to 20 years initial confinement and 10 years extended supervision Dec. 20, 2013, for the arson fire at SCC Elementary.
The atmosphere was jubilant, celebratory and thankful. After teachers Megan Elmhorst and Vanessa Huftel sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” principal Steve Sanders began the program by thanking countless people and organizations for their support, hard work and perseverance.
“We went to work,” Sanders said of the days following the fire. “We formed a plan. Contrary to belief, we had no blueprint. It was amazing to see two communities work together to make such a negative event into such a positive event.”
Sanders, who wore the outfit that was his uniform for 23 days straight during the fire cleanup and Panther Camp organization, carried his bullhorn (a familiar sight last year in the aftermath) as he spoke to the assembly.
“When I found out about the fire, I thought ‘No, this is a dream -- or a nightmare.’ As I turned the corner to go to the school, I knew it was going to be a long day,” Sanders said.
The focus of the celebration was to look to the future, not the past. Sanders set a wood carving of the words “Forward Together” on the podium as he spoke. He received the carving last year from SCC parents Tim and Nicole Gardner. The motto came from special education teacher Lori Gayan and paraprofessional Pam Pribnow, who originally encouraged students in their classrooms with the words.
A 10-minute video by library media specialist Amanda Olson depicted the days of cleanup, Panther Camp and moving into the rebuilt school. The audience gasped as pictures of the fire’s aftermath played across the screen. Soon the gasps were replaced with cheers as Panther Camp and remodeling photos appeared.
Students thanked the crowd with songs, poems and hand lettered signs spelling out “thank you” in several languages. Third-grade teacher Guy Victor led the students in a rousing cheer and dance routine.
“I heard over and over ‘what can I do to help?’” Sanders said. “I couldn’t believe the people who would spend sunrise to sunset getting things ready at Panther Camp. Many didn’t even have kids in the district. And we still are using donations we received.”
While the fire was devastating, there is much to celebrate in the school building: a new library and media center, nurse’s office, computer room, library computer lab, front office area, secure entryway with murals painted by art teacher Jason Rohde, building upgrades and classroom space.
Sanders said coming back to replace Heidi Weisert-Peatow in the interim has been a chance for him to gain closure after the fire. He retired last spring, but came back when Weisert-Peatow abruptly resigned in January.
“I didn’t get to finish the way that I wanted to,” Sanders said. “I am now allowed to finish in this building. That bond, that strength (of the community) is still there. Those relationships will never go away.”
The celebration ended with a performance by the local band Trigger Happy. Fourth-grade teacher Tom Magee, who will retire after 35 years, and special education teacher Colette Grothe, who will retire this spring after 18 years, shared a celebratory dance with students and staff.
As the 30th comes and goes, many people’s thoughts will turn to that day one year ago when one fire brought a community together.
“I don’t know how I’ll react to that,” Sanders said two days before the anniversary. “It still seems like it was only a couple of weeks ago.”
A clock in the entryway of the school is stopped forever at the time arson shut down the school. No one will ever forget as they move “forward together.”