A journey of hope

In the years after the Lakeview bus crash, families and friends chose to turn sadness into healing by giving back to others and celebrating the fallen children’s spirits

File photo In 2009, the mothers of the four Lakeview bus crash victims explain what they had in mind regarding the design of a memorial garden at the school. Pictured, from left, are: Rita Javens, Traci Olson and Kandy Noles Stevens.


As the first anniversary of the Lakeview bus crash was getting closer, people were really dreading the day. That’s when a few people decided to get together and plan an uplifting celebration instead.

Now 10 years later, people are proud to talk about their Journey of Hope, which allowed people in the school and community to turn tragedy into a healing celebration.

“The Journey of Hope was created by a committee comprised of school staff, community members and parents of students from the bus crash,” Lakeview Superintendent Chris Fenske said. “The purpose of the day was to remember each of the students whose lives were lost and to perform service projects as a way to give back for all the support that was shown to Lakeview.”

Of the 28 schoolchildren who were on the bus on Feb. 19, 2008, 14 were injured and four were killed in the crash. Traci and Charlie Olson lost their 9-year-old daughter, Emilee. Daniel Stevens and Kandy Noles Stevens lost their 12-year-old son, Reed, while Rita and Marty Javens suffered the loss of two sons, 9-year-old Hunter and 13-year-old Jesse.

“My biggest thing was that I didn’t want it to be another sad day,” Traci Olson said. Everybody was dreading the anniversary and were asking what we were going to do. So why not celebrate the day. They were great kids.”

When students and staff walked into Lakeview School on the one-year anniversary of the crash, they were greeted by a huge banner that with the words “Journey of Hope” on it.

“I think it was good for the healing process,” Olson said. “It became something people would look forward to and not dread. All of the kids (who died) had great personalities and were always laughing and giggling. That’s how I wanted them remembered.”

Olson said students made tie quilts on the first anniversary in addition to designing their own colorful tile for the “Wall of Hope” to be displayed on the walls just outside the school library.

“The Journey of Hope encompasses everyone pre-K through 12th grade,” she said. “And it was meant to be a celebration, not a sad thing. So there were multiple things done that day.”

The tie quilts were something that students could make and give back to organizations like the ambulance crews that had given them quilts or the Linus Project, a national nonprofit organization that provides handmade blankets to seriously ill and traumatized children.

“It was a good feeling to be able to give back to the communities or organizations that helped out our school,” Olson said.

For the tiles, students had the opportunity to select red, green or blue. Each individual student also had the freedom to design the tile in his or her own personal way. Some chose to etch out the names of the four students who died, while others drew a football, horse or something else that was special to them or to Jesse, Reed, Hunter or Emilee.

“There are subtle remembrances all over the school,” Lakeview District secretary Heidi Beck said. “It’s important to remember. It’s not who we are completely, but it’s definitely a part of us. “And every year when we celebrate the Journey of Hope, we’re reminded that it’s about hope and not death.”

There were also special cupcakes at lunchtime for everyone at the school. This was done on each of the following anniversaries as well.

“The cooks always did the cupcakes in the four different colors (representing the favorite colors of the four students who died),” Olson said. “Emilee’s was pink and purple, Reed’s was red, Jesse’s was black and Hunter’s was green.”

The following years, Olson said she hired Timberwolves mascot, Crunch, to put on an entertaining show for the entire school population.

“For two or three years, I hired Crunch to do a slam dunk for the kids during the day and also perform at halftime of our basketball game,” Olson said. “One year he came and read ‘The Real Story of the Three Little Pigs’ where it wasn’t the wolf’s fault.”

Another year, Crunch was joined by T.C. the Minnesota Twins bear mascot and former Vikings player Esera Tuaolo.

“Viktor the Viking couldn’t make it, so Esera came out and sang some songs,” Olson said. “He’s retired now and was just in the news for throwing a party for the Super Bowl. It was a party highlighting how everyone should be accepted.”

One year, Alexandria Aces, which was comprised of boys and girls ages 5-12 who perform spinning, juggling and dribbling stunts, performed at Lakeview School. Another year, illusionist Reza did multiple shows there.

“The Alexandria Aces had amazing ball handlers and did a halftime show for us,” Olson said. “Reza came a couple of years. He typically gives two different performances– one for the younger kids and one for the older students.”

Inspirational speakers, including authors John Crudele and V.J. Smith, retired WCCO-TV news anchor Don Shelby and KLQP-FM “Q-92” sports announcer Terry Overland, were also part of anniversary celebrations.

“Every year, Traci Olson would kind of take the reins despite the fact that she was one who lost a child,” Beck said. “She is such a go-getter. We would have a fundraiser every year and the whole community would come out. Funds would be raised and she would bring in a speaker — something fun and uplifting. Each year, there was some special event.”

Olson said Don Shelby had just written and published a book before arriving at Lakeview.

“We bought books for all of the kids,” she said. “We did a book study and he came in and let the kids ask him questions. Another inspirational speaker, John Crudele, came to Cottonwood from the Twin Cities. When all of those guys would come, we’d do a pulled pork or walking taco fundraiser to help pay for the event.”

Last year, Olson said she brought in Minnesota Vikings mindset coach Cindra Kamphoff.

“She came in and talked,” Olson said. “It was great.”

This year marked the first that nothing was planned on the bus crash anniversary. Lakeview students and staff had the day off in honor of Presidents Day.

“I had said I’d be committed till the grade Emilee was in graduated and that was last year,” Olson said. “There are still some (bus crash survivors) in high school — my son, Rilee, was one of the youngest students on the bus that day and he’s a sophomore this year — but everything has to come to an end at some point. It seemed like the perfect time.”

While the Journey of Hope provided school- and community-wide opportunities to respectfully remember the four children who lost their lives that day in the bus crash as well as allow everyone the chance to celebrate the good times and just being together, other impactful things were also done throughout the last decade.

Charlie Olson and other members of the Cottonwood Fire Department raised money for the installation of stop signs with flashing lights at rural intersections near Cottonwood.

“That was one of Charlie’s passionate things, to do anything we can to help people be safe,” Traci Olson said. “It started at one intersection, at the actual crossing of where the bus crash was. Then there was another bad accident on County Road 9, so they did more fundraising to do that one. All three of those intersections now have them.”

Early on after the fatal crash, there were get-togethers for classmates of the victims. Most of the time, those celebrations concluded with a balloon release in memory of the four children. Then some of the families began planning special events on the birthdays of the crash victims.

“The Javenses did a lot of things with their kids’ classes on their sons’ birthdays,” Olson said. “It was similar to what we did with Emilee’s class on November 2, which was her birthday.”

The Javens and Stevens families also got football jerseys for the junior high players in memory of their seventh-grade sons.

Photos of the four students who died 10 years ago will forever be on display in Lakeview School’s Hall of Honor, a place where current students often hang out around lunch time. There’s also a heart wreath and artwork depicting some of the four students’ favorite things.

“There are so many things in the building that people don’t even realize that are in memory of our four kids,” Olson said. “They’re very subtle, but for those of us who know, they’re very special.”

The Stevens, Javens and Olson families were instrumental in getting a memorial garden started on the school grounds many years ago. Most noticeable in the garden is a large red heart with the names of the four children who died on one side and the names of the survivors on the other side.

“The three families had it drawn up and requested it to be done,” Olson said. “We all chipped in money and sold the bricks to help pay for that being done. On nice days, teachers will take kids out there and have class. That was kind of the purpose, to just go out and sit, relax and enjoy whatever you’re doing.”

Over the last 10 years, people have rallied together and supported each other. Olson believes that will continue, as will the good memories.

“I don’t think anybody is going to forget,” she said. “They enjoyed the Journey of Hope and wanted it to continue. But it can’t go on forever.”

While the official celebrations may have come to a close, the families hold onto hope that people will still remember their loved ones in the future.”

“The saddest day will be the day they are forgotten,” Olson said.