Hope and healing
Support offered to families, students, teachers in coping with aftermath of tragedy
COTTONWOOD — The heartbreak and human suffering felt after the February 2008 Lakeview bus crash spread from the small community of Cottonwood like ripples on the water.
Four children died and more than half of the others on the bus that day were injured — some of them severely. But through a sense of community — one that stretched around the area, across the state and beyond — people impacted by the tragedy came together and supported each other through the healing process.
“It’s a different process for everybody,” Lakeview literacy coordinator Susanne Lee said. “What I remember after school that day was that someone said there was a bus accident and I was thinking maybe it slipped into the ditch and everyone’s fine. I thought maybe there were just a couple of bumps or bruises. I never thought it was going to be really bad.”
Lee was a third-grade teacher back then and had the youngest victim, 9-year-old Emilee Olson, in her class. She’d also taught the three other children who died — 9-year-old Hunter Javens, 12-year-old Reed Stevens and 13-year-old Jesse Javens.
“They were all good kids,” Lee said. “It’s just so hard to understand how something like this could happen.”
Lee recalls that one of the worst moments for her was trying to decide what to do with Emilee’s desk. She credits Canby’s Brian Skogen and other counselors who came in to offer much-needed support to the students and staff trying to cope with the tragedy.
“I was in a fog,” Lee said. “(Brian) was my voice of reason. I had no idea what to do with Emilee’s desk, so he did a lot of the thinking for me as an outside person. He said we were going to leave the desk there for a day and we’re going to talk to the kids about having Emilee’s desk here today, but tomorrow when you come, it will be gone.”
Lee said she worried that the removal of the desk would be tough for the students and especially for Emilee’s parents, Traci and Charlie Olson.
“That was hard because I worried about Traci and Charlie and if it would be really difficult for them, knowing her desk wasn’t there,” she said. “For me, it was worse having that desk sit empty. It was awful.”
The tragedy deeply affected a lot of people at the school and communities in the area.
“It’s one of those things where reading, math, science — none of that mattered right then,” Lee said. “It was so hard to get past it and back into a routine. I very much appreciate the extra support. We could not have done it on our own.”
Lakeview teachers and other personnel, including counselor Shelley Buntjer, tried their best to meet the needs of the grieving students.
“It was difficult because you knew everybody was hurting,” Buntjer said.
Lakeview district secretary Heidi Beck gave a lot of credit to the school employees, most of who are still at the school today.
“There’s not much turnover in staff here,” she said. “It’s a great team atmosphere.”
But the magnitude of the bus crash tragedy required outside resources. Along with Skogen and Buntjer, more than 20 mental health professionals and counselors arrived to help the students and the staff. Long-term counselors included: Phil Goetstouwers, Tammy Garruth, Cindy Manthey and Pam Galbraith.
“Lakeview did bring in really good counselors,” Beck said. “The seventh-graders (who lost classmates Reed and Jesse) had lots of circle time and lots of counseling. It wasn’t always the same counselor, but the same counselors came on certain days. Mr. Goetstouwers was so good with our kids. He’s amazing. There was a student who lost a classmate and he was really struggling. He would just walk the halls with him. Different kids needed different things and the counselors that came in really recognized that. They worked really well with the kids.”
Goetstouwers was a school counselor from Westbrook-Walnut Grove 10 years ago.
“I offered my services and worked with the siblings, cousins and friends that were affected by the tragedy,” he said. “It’s never easy to counsel others whose lives have been so drastically affected. For many, it was the first time they’d experienced a death of a loved one and trying to process and verbalize it at a young age is that much harder.”
Goetstouwers said his role was to help them try and make sense of it all.
“I did that by helping them process and describe what they were going through and providing them support and skills to help them continue on,” Goetstouwers said. “Many of these affected families had a close relationship to God, which helped the process.”
Skogen said he really got to know Emilee’s third-grade classmates.
“(One of the girls) wrote me a thank-you card,” he said. “One side had a broken heart and it said ‘Before you came.’ The other side had a heart with a Band-Aid and said, ‘After you came.'”
Skogen said it was important to get routines going as quickly as possible for students and staff.
“Routine is good if you’re grieving,” Skogen said. “You still have to allow that process. There are times where you’re going to cry. It takes time to accept what happened. It’s definitely a process.”
Beck said fourth-grade students, including Hunter Javens’ twin sister, Sasha, also received counseling and took part in circle time as a group. Many of the students also had the opportunity to take part in pet therapy. Staff learned about compassion fatigue and also had access to support resources.
“We had a lot of services come in and we could sign up,” Lee said. “You’re trying to be up for the kids, but I’d cry at home. My understanding is that support and counseling for the kids who were on the bus continued on into the summer.”
Cottonwood Fire Chief Dale Louwagie said he thought school personnel, emergency responders, grief counselors and community members did an extraordinary job of supporting each other.
“The fire departments and ambulances were not only brought together, but the community as well,” he said. “They were very supportive, as were the surrounding communities. It was amazing.”
A strong faith also helped many people get through the tragedy. On the evening of the crash, people gathered at Swan Lake Church.
“We had a news conference there,” Louwagie said. “I remember that somebody asked me what we could do as a community and I just said, ‘Pray.'”
Beck said she tried for years to understand how something like the bus crash could happen.
“I think, as human beings, you want to reconcile everything — well, this happened because of this or this happened because you made that choice — but the bus crash is one thing we’ll never reconcile on this side of heaven,” Beck said. “I just finally came to that conclusion. For years, I kept asking God, ‘Why?'”
Beck acknowledges that there is evil, sickness and death in this world, but that having faith is still the answer.
“It’s a broken world,” she said. “God didn’t promise it was going to be perfect. He just promised to walk through it with us.”
Beck added that the incredible support from schools and communities well beyond the Cottonwood area has helped a lot of people in the healing process.
“We were so blessed by the outpouring of support,” Beck said. “It was amazing.”
One of the heartfelt letters came from Somerset, Kentucky, roughly 984 miles southeast of Cottonwood. The couple who sent the note said they wanted the sender to know that after balloons were sent to deliver messages to Hunter, those balloons returned to Earth on March 12, 2008, near Lake Cumberland in south central Kentucky.
More than 25 Minnesota schools sent cards, posters, gifts, food or flowers, including the area schools of Granite Falls, Ivanhoe, Marshall, Tracy Area and Westbrook-Walnut Grove.
“The commons area was full of posters and lined with flowers from other schools,” Beck said. “Yellow Medicine East sent a very large poster with signage. Tracy sent money from staff. Cedar Mountain/Comfrey brought cookies. Westbrook-Walnut Grove did a penny drive.”
Beck said a church in Willmar sent smaller-sized prayer blankets. Quilts were also sent from Project Linus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“There were enough quilts for every child in third, fourth and seventh grade,” she said. “It was nice because it was something physical they could wrap around themselves.”
Rise on the Road, which is part of Rise Ministries, an organization that has a passion for teaching teens how to overcome adversity in their lives, also offered support to hurting families.
“There were times where you heard from speakers, but they also had the servant events, where they went out to the families’ homes,” Beck said. “They were loved on in a physical way, like a hands-on, let’s get some physical work done for you way.”
Sherri Pickthorn, who had two kids on the bus that day, was instrumental in getting the organization to come to southwest Minnesota. Swan Lake Church hosted the weekend event, which also featured concerts by Christian bands Breathe Deep and Everyday Sunday.
“I would say all of the families felt there was a lot of support,” Beck said.
People often wonder what to say or do when a tragedy hits. Kandy Noles Stevens, whose son, Reed, died in the crash, wrote a book called “the redbird sings the song of hope: and other stories of love through loss.” In it, she writes about what is and isn’t helpful to those who are grieving.
Karen Mahlum, who was one of the first to arrive on the scene after the bus crash, said the support from other people makes all the difference in the grieving process. Two years ago, her 38-year-old son was killed in a car crash.
“There were people who just came and stayed with (my husband and me),” she said. “You don’t forget stuff like that. It makes you be able to go from one day to the next. I’m sure that’s how it was with the bus crash victims, too. And it doesn’t even have to be people who are your friends — just people who have so much compassion for other human beings.”