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WDC School helps 8-year-old cope with aftermath of June tornado

Photo by Dana Pavek/WDC Schools Ashley Peterson talks to Laura Kiser, WDC social worker, about the tornado that destroyed their family home. The family moved in a double-wide mobile home this fall and is adjusting to life after the tornado.

For Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary third-grader, Ashley Peterson, there's rarely a day that goes by when she isn't haunted by the June 17 tornado that destroyed her family home in southwest Wadena.

On that sultry summer afternoon nearly six months ago, Ashley, along with her 11-year-old sister, Katie, and 19-year-old brother, Robert, were home while their parents, Rob and Margie, were running errands in Wadena. When the "windows started to pop," as Ashley described it, they took shelter in their basement. Ashley, her sister and the family dogs huddled in a corner, while Robert laid on top of the girls to protect them.

"[The tornado] picked up our house and took it off the foundation," said the soft-spoken 8-year-old. "It was really scary."

Luckily, the Peterson children escaped any serious physical harm. Katie did receive a gash on her leg from a brick, but the wound healed and a scar remains -- as do the mental scars.

To help relieve the trauma from the storm, Ashley and Katie took part in the week-long day camp called Camp Noah in August designed to help children in a disaster area.

"[Camp Noah] kind of got me over storms and everything," said Katie of the camp. For Ashley, the camp's Healing Room provided her a place to find comfort and solace. "I liked the Healing Room. I could sit in the room with stuffed animals and a quilt, and talk about anything."

Sponsored by Lutheran Social Services, Camp Noah helped 68 children in grades 1 to 6 from the Wadena area with the emotional and psychological recovery. A follow-up to Camp Noah will be held on Monday, Dec. 13 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at WDC Elementary School. It is open to parents and children affected by the June 17 tornado.

Returning to normalcy

Since that fateful afternoon on June 17, nightmares have filled Ashley's sleepless nights. She replays the sounds, the terror, and the loss her family endured. Even the aftermath of emerging from the basement to see the awful destruction left by the twister haunts her.

"It was a mess ... trees broken ... our car was sitting on top of a stump. There was stuff all over," Ashley recalled.

When classmates in Ashley's third-grade class began sharing stories about the tornado during the first week of school, her teacher Lori Grendahl noticed Ashley was fidgety and uncomfortable.

"It was too much for her. She wasn't ready to talk about it," recalled Grendahl, who then talked to Laura Kiser, WDC's social worker.

Over the next several weeks, Kiser spent time with Ashley, trying to get her to open up about her feelings. After a tornado like Wadena experienced, Kiser said children are often afraid the tornado will come back again and they will be injured or left alone.

"We worked on those anxieties with Ashley, either by talking about them or just doing activities she did before the tornado, to make her feel secure about life," said Kiser.

Kiser suggested to Ashley that she write her feelings in a journal. Even though her journal writing has been sporadic, Ashley does express how she's feeling on her good and not-so-good days. Most recently though, a breakthrough: Ashley wrote three pages in her journal. "Most of it was my Christmas list!" said Ashley with a grin.

Even so, Kiser feels this is progress.

"She's looking forward to Christmas. That means something positive," said Kiser.

Hanging in Kiser's office is a poster called "Today I Am Feeling ..." which displays a variety of faces with expressions, such as sad, grouchy or angry, to help students when they can't put their emotions into words.

"Ashley will walk into my office, look at the poster and move her name to a face that expresses how she's feeling that particular day," Kiser said. Over time, Ashley's "faces" have become more on the happy side, less scared or angry.

One of Ashley's favorite activities with her family prior to the tornado was playing board games. Unfortunately, all of her games were lost. Kiser decided to make this a part of their healing process. Oftentimes, the two will play "Trouble" or "Mancala" during their time together.

"She sure enjoys

beating me at board games!" Kiser joked of Ashley's competitive spirit. Ashley's face lights up with a shy smile. Kiser leaned over to give Ashley a squeeze and added, "She's one tough cookie."

WDC staff continues to monitor students whether they lost everything in the tornado or simply know people who have. "We were so fortunate to have no serious injuries or fatalities," said Kiser. "But the emotional pain this has caused has been great."

Kiser went on to say symptoms of anxiety may not appear for weeks or even months after a tornado, and they can affect people of any age. WDC Schools encourage any parents with concerns about their children to contact your child's teacher or school social worker.