Small town, big hearts

Story by Nikki McKim; photo by Brian McKim

Falls City Public schools and Sacred Heart school went the extra mile to lift their student’s spirits last week. 

On Monday, March 30, the teachers held a community parade. The educators encouraged the community to follow CDC guidelines and stay on their porches in groups less than ten as they drove through Falls City neighborhoods. 

A few weeks ago, some Falls City North School teachers mentioned seeing parades like this done on a smaller scale in larger cities. A week later, it was brought up again, and they decided to make it a school-wide event with both Public School and Sacred Heart. 

The parade wasn’t able to drive by every home in Falls City. Still, they hit the majority of town when they drove north and south down Valley, Nemaha Ave, Fulton Street, McLean Street, Wilson Street, Morton Street, Lane Street, Harlan Street, Stone Street, Chase Street, Barada Street, Towle Street, Crook Street, Abbott Street, and Schoenheit Street. The teachers were waving and honking at groups of cheering students and community members. 

Falls City Middle School Principal Jack Bangert said he wasn’t sure what to expect. 

“As soon as I got to the high school, I could tell this was going to be a really neat experience.”  

Bangert said it was also a great chance to just take in the town.  

“It was fun to go through old neighborhoods where I used to ride my bike and past houses where my friends grew up. The cherry on top was that it didn’t matter if it was Sacred Heart or the Public School; it was just Falls City supporting kids and families.” 

Bangert said he sees many little towns that are vanishing or gone, and he doesn’t want Falls City to be a statistic. “We have a lot of work to do, and it will be a joint effort, but if our community unites, I have no doubt that Falls City’s story will have many more chapters.” 

“We are better together. I remember toward the end of the parade leaning over to Vicki and saying, this is why we moved back,” said Bangert.

Doug Goltz, principal at Falls City Sacred Heart, said he thought this was a great idea, and he was glad that Sacred Heart School and Falls City Public did it together. 

“As the parade began, I felt that we were trying to make sure our students know we are thinking of them and missing them.  By the end of the parade, my feelings had changed. The parade gave me the encouragement I’m needing now.  It went from me trying to make others feel good to making me feel good.  Giving a gift ended up being a gift to me.” 

Goltz said in times like these; he thinks we need to be unified and there for one another.  

“Thank you for supporting teachers and staff in our local schools.  These are tough times for everyone, especially children. It’s also a very difficult time for those of us in education.  We are working hard and trying our best to keep our children learning and growing.  We just can’t be together in our classrooms like we normally are.  We all look forward to when things can get back to normal.  Stay positive,” said Goltz.

Students, parents, and other members of the community made encouraging signs to hold as the teachers drove by. 

“It was like a breath of fresh air to see our schools engaged in an activity for our students. This is a difficult situation, and we miss and care so much for our students. It was great to see them

smile and have the opportunity to connect,” said Falls City Public High School Principal, Gale Dunkhas. “We have a dedicated and caring staff. We know how much we miss our students. It’s great to know that they care and miss us as well.”

With cars, trucks, balloons, and signs saying “we miss you,” the teachers and staff spent a couple of hours driving their way through Falls City.

Several teachers shared how uplifting the experience was for them and their students. 

“The parade was a blessing for everyone. Parents saw the bond that grows between teachers and students, and then the grandparents of our community, they may have been my favorite,” said Katy Gifford, FCPS Life Skills Teacher. “The thank-yous and applause of those who are alone in their homes. They brought me to tears. It was a joy to help others and smile; to help everyone realize that we have a strong community, and we are blessed to have each other.”

Ginger Feek, FCPS Life Skills Teacher, said she was overwhelmed by it all. 

“Coming together as a community was wonderful,” said Ginger Feek. “It melted my heart to see each of my students as I went by and how excited they were. I wanted my students to know that I’m still here for them.”

For these students, this will be a significant event in their life. Many teachers wanted to make sure they did something special for their students by letting them know that they are still there to support them even when they can’t physically be there. 

“I had no clue it would be like this, but the moment we started driving down the street, I was overcome with emotion,” said Erin Waller, the English/Publications teacher at Sacred Heart. “It was nice to see all of the smiling faces and to feel connected at that moment, even if we were doing it from afar.”

Waller said she knew how difficult it has been to be home and how difficult it must be for her students to be away from their friends at this scary time, “I know you’re mourning the loss of the end of your school and all of its milestones. We love you and are so proud of you,” said Waller. “Please continue to stay safe and stay home!”

Kris Simon, Language Arts Teacher at FCPS, said it was one of the most important events that she’s been a part of in all her teaching years. 

The experience was, “Overwhelming, the first tears came as soon as my husband and I were pulling up to the High School parking lot, and I saw so many teachers there,” said Simon. “The love that I felt from our students and community launched a feeling of pride and love that perhaps is one of the positives of this virus scare.”

Simon said she wants her students to stay positive. “Don’t overwhelm yourself with the news or the negative, ‘what ifs.’ Find what makes you happy during this time, trust God, and watch my YouTube channel!”

Angie Embretson, Early Childhood Teacher at FCPS and Mrs. E. to her students, said she wanted to be a part of the parade because it was essential to keep connections as strong as possible during this time of uncertainty. “With all the anxiety and stress people are feeling, it can start to feel like we are all on our very own and disconnection.” 

Embretson said she felt the parade was a perfect reminder to everyone that even though we are distancing ourselves for our safety and health, we can still be present and available in a time of need. “One little guy in my class decided to watch the parade twice. He watched it at grandma’s and then got his family to drive across town to watch It at his own house.”

“I really miss my ‘kids,’” said Vicky Zoeller, Language Arts Teacher at FCPS. “We are all trying our best to help you move forward, and this is a learning experience for us all, so be patient.”

Taylor Kearney, a second-grade teacher at FCPS, said it was wonderful to see all of the schools and teachers in the community come together as one and support the children. “This is a time of uncertainty, and the children need our support the most. They will talk about this parade for years to come. It was something positive for our small town.” 

Kearney said the parade gave her chills, and she was shocked to see so many people in the community participating. “When I saw my students, tears filled my eyes. This experience was like nothing I had experienced before.” 

Kearney said she misses her students and can’t wait to see them soon.

Karen Boatright sixth grade teacher at FCPS, said the parade was so encouraging and emotionally uplifting. “There was joy in being connected again.”

“We are a community, our fabrics are interwoven, and we miss being together,” said Boatright. “We are learning, growing, adapting, and changing. We are continuing to be challenged, and we will be stronger.”

Fr. Ken Hoesing, of FCSH, said it was good to see so many people he hadn’t seen in a while. 

“Everyone was happy and having a good time,” said Fr. Hoesing, “I just wanted an opportunity to see my students and their families because it had been a while.”

Chris Bennett, Art teacher at FCPS, said that she wanted to show the kids that she missed seeing them, and the parade lifted her spirits. 

“My daughter Desirae Schawang was my chauffeur for the event. At first, she was just driving, while I waved at everyone. Three blocks into the parade, she had a great big smile. It was contagious!” said Bennett. “I think everyone felt the love and support that night.”

Angie Taft, Mathematics teacher at Sacred Heart, said it was great to see the community come together for a common purpose during an uncertain time. “The smiles, waves, shouts, and tears were just what many of us needed.”

Taft said she was pleasantly surprised to see so many of her high school students out. “The entire community showed up, and it was something I will always remember.” 

Taft wants her students to keep making her proud, and remember to, “Wash your hands and say your prayers because Jesus and germs are everywhere.”

Caitlin Shafer, Kindergarten teacher at FCPS, said the parade was an uplifting moment in this unprecedented time. “I literally cried happy and sad tears at the same time. I have a hard time putting into words exactly how I felt, but to see so many people was just what this teacher’s heart needed.”

Shafer said she knew this would be a special event. “I knew that we, as a teaching community, would band together and share our love of education.”

Shafer says she misses her students terribly. “You are all so brave and courageous!”

Sue James, Para-Professional at FCPS, said she is hoping to do another parade. “I loved seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces.”

Charles Hawley, first-grade teacher at FCPS, said the parade made everyone feel more connected to the school and the community. “We needed to see the kids as much as they needed to see us!”

“Every time we would turn to the next block, we would see more kids and community members excited to see all the teachers. Very heartwarming,” said Hawley. “It looked amazing, but I didn’t realize how wonderful it would be until we were involved. We will become stronger once this has all ended.”

Cathy O’Grady of FCSH, said it was great to participate with the Falls City Public School staff. 

“We are all in this together and want the best for all children and our community; I felt like it was a great bonding moment!  Not only was it great to bring joy to the kids but it was great to see older people out on their porches and lawns waving and clapping for us,” said O’Grady. “Don’t get to comfortable and let your guard down, if we are smart and patient we will All get through this and move forward with our lives!”

Allison Haines, MTSS teacher at FCPS, said the past few weeks have been hard as a teacher, trying to plan and move forward. “Seeing the support from the community makes it worth it.” Haines said it was a great feeling being able to see the students and her co-workers. “Thank you to all the community members, my students, and all teachers and staff members. This is something we can be apart of without breaking the social distancing. No matter if this is your first year teaching or 30th year, none of us have been a part of something like this.”

Betsy Nelson said she felt proud to be part of a community that came together, both schools showing their support for students, parents, and families. “It wasn’t just my Sacred Heart family; it was everyone, and that was an emotional tearjerker. I wanted to take part in this so I could see my students, and so that they could see me, and maybe have a feeling that everything is going to be alright.” Nelson wanted to thank the community for all their support of teachers and her students for continuing to work hard and “keep praying.”

Skylar Kreifels, the Technology and Curriculum Director at FCPS, said she bounces around between the buildings, so a lot of the kids don’t really know her, so she supported the parade as a spectator. “I see first hand how much our teachers love being in the classroom. I can only imagine how lost they are without the kiddos at this time.”

Kreifels said she could tell the parade was something the teachers needed to connect with their students. “I’d like to share this with the students, your teachers love each and every one of you, and they are still here for you even though they cannot be with you each day.”

“My heart exploded, seeing how happy not only the kids and parents were, but the older folks in town that came out and watched. It was awesome to see all the excitement,” said FCPS Kindergarten teacher, Angie Hunzeker.

Kim Nolte, Family and Consumer Science Teacher, at FCPS, said it gave her the hope she needed at this time. “I loved seeing all the smiles from current and past students. We have the best community.”

Jenny Helmick, Nurse at FCPS, said the parade made her week and reminded her that people care about her as much as she does them. “I was feeling alone but knew I wasn’t. I was hoping that we would be able to see some of those kiddos that may be struggling and let them know we care.” Helmick had an important message to share with all the students, “Reach out to us if you need anything. Not only school work help, but anything you need. We are there to help fulfill your needs and keep our community strong.” 

Our school doors may be closed, but our school hearts are still open, said Gale Dunkhas.

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