Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One family’s journey: Five years after the Cottonwood school bus crash February 13, 2013

SHE ASKS IF I REMEMBER “the cupcake thing.”

But I have only a vague recollection of lots and lots of cupcakes.

Traci Olson, though, remembers, like yesterday, the details of “the cupcake thing,” which she compares to the biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000.

First, the cupcakes started coming in, then more and more and more for her 9-year-old daughter Emilee’s funeral. There were enough left over to serve mourners at the funeral of the Javens brothers, Hunter, 9, and Jesse, 13. The cupcakes just kept coming, so the sweet treats were also offered at the funeral of Reed Stevens, 12.

Still, all the cupcakes had not been eaten. So whoever wanted the mini cakes could take them home.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

“The cupcake thing” didn’t end in February 2008, when Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed, all students at Lakeview Public School in Cottonwood, died in the crash of their school bus and a mini van. Five years later, the tradition continues every February 19 (or the nearest date school is in session) at Lakeview. The cooks bake cupcakes and frost them in the students’ favorite colors—pink or purple for Emilee, red for Reed, green for Hunter and black for Jesse.

It is a way to celebrate the lives of the four, whom Traci describes as “fun, happy-go-lucky kids.”

“We don’t want the kids to be defined by how their lives ended,” she emphasizes.

Traci, who teaches early childhood special education at Lakeview, has, by default, she says, become the key organizer of Lakeview’s annual Journey of Hope, a community gathering to celebrate the lives of those lost and the healing that has taken place since that February 19 afternoon in 2008 when life forever changed in Cottonwood, a farming town of 1,200 in southwestern Minnesota.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

This year’s celebration is slated for Valentine’s Day and starts with an afternoon presentation on bullying by Minnesota Timberwolves mascot Crunch followed by a community gathering in the evening. That includes serving of pulled pork sandwiches beginning at 5 p.m., photos with Crunch, a slam/dunk half-time show and three basketball games.

Traci says Journey of Hope has always focused on the positive, not on mourning the community’s loss.

Days before the five-year anniversary, Traci shared her thoughts with me, in an hour-long phone interview, about her daughter, life since the crash and the healing that has taken place. We did not discuss Olga Franco del Cid, who was driving the mini van that blew through a stop sign and slammed into the school bus. Franco del Cid was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges and sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

TRACI REMEMBERS WITH CLARITY the first time she laid eyes on baby Emilee in China. Chun Wen, among about 20 babies, just sat and stared at her adoptive mom. “I picked her up and she was mine,” Traci says of her strong-willed, independent girl with the deep, raspy voice who came home to Minnesota at 10 months of age.

Emilee LaVanche, as Traci and Charlie Olson renamed their daughter after Traci’s grandparents Emil and LaVanche, fit right in with her older siblings, Bailee and Sidnee. She emulated Bailee’s piano playing, becoming an accomplished pianist, and eventually followed the family’s passion for showing horses. On her seventh birthday, Emilee got her own horse, Barbie.

“Everybody knew her,” Traci says of her outgoing and vivacious daughter who made friends wherever she went. She would light up a room or a show ring. And she was, most assuredly, Traci says, a blessing to her and Charlie’s family, which at the time of Emilee’s death included Bailee, 14; Sidnee, 11; and Rilee, 6.

Traci would later return to China for the third time (Rilee is also from China) to adopt seven-year-old Lucee. She makes it clear that Lucee is not meant to replace Emilee, noting rather her deep love of children: “I was meant to be with kids and to do stuff with kids.”

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

ON THE AFTERNOON OF THE CRASH, Traci, then a health and physical education teacher at Lakeview, told Emilee, “You need to ride the bus (home about two miles)… I love you.”

That marked the last time she spoke to her daughter.

A short while later her husband, a part-time school bus driver, phoned to tell Traci about a “bad bus accident” half a mile from their farm. Traci rushed to the crash site to help.  Then, upon realizing it was her children’s bus, she desperately began searching for her three kids riding the bus that day. She found Rilee, but could not locate Sidnee or Emilee.

As Traci recounts the aftermath of the crash which killed four and injured 17, she describes a chaotic scene, “a lot of hoping and praying,” racing to the hospital in nearby Marshall, helicopters coming and going, her desperate inquiries for information about “the only Chinese girl on the bus,” the family’s journey to Sioux Falls where Sidnee underwent emergency surgery for a lacerated eye, and the eventual visit to the funeral home to identify Emilee.

Traci recalls a phone conversation with her sister. “I can’t find Sidnee and Emilee. This is really, really bad.” In that moment, when she could not find her daughter, Traci says, “I knew right away.”

Emilee and Sidnee were sitting across from each other half way back on the bus, Emilee with Hunter. Jesse and Reed were behind them. Rilee was at the front of the bus.

Thinking back to that awful day, Traci says, “You never move on, but you’re forced to move forward. We can’t change it, we can’t make it go away.” But, she is determined that her surviving kids, now ages 9 – 19, not reference their lives “before and after Emilee.” And she is determined, too, to celebrate Emilee’s life.

For example, each year Traci celebrates Emilee’s November 2 birthday with her classmates. This past November, the now Lakeview 8th graders made and donated 30 fleece blankets to the Ronald McDonald house in Rochester. In the past, Emilee’s classmates have made Native American horse sticks and welcomed former WCCO TV news anchor Don Shelby in honor of their classmate’s birthday. Lakeview students got copies of Shelby’s inspirational book, The Season Never Ends.

The birthday party always focuses on honoring her daughter in an educational and memory-building way, Traci says. And it always ends with serving of Emilee’s favorite root beer floats.

Traci also coaches Emilee’s classmates’ basketball team.

“My saddest day will be when no one will remember who Emilie is,” Traci shares.

THAT IS NOT LIKELY to happen any time soon as Traci speaks of a caring community that continues to “wrap their arms around us and the other families.” Good friends before the crash, the Olson, Javens and Stevens families now lean on one another.

Not that there aren’t difficult days. Her family is open and honest enough, Traci says, to admit when they’re having a bad day. Sometimes that means stepping out of school for 20 minutes to cry in her car, or doing something with the horses or her family to deal with the grief. She’s especially grateful, Traci notes, for supportive school administrators and colleagues.

Losing a child “makes you totally rethink what’s important,” Traci says. And for her and Charlie, that’s being together as a family, participating in those competitive Ponies of America Club horse shows, celebrating Emilee’s birthday and more. “We’re not thinking coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

The Olsons also have adopted a new perspective on life as they’ve already endured the most difficult of losses. “If we lose a crop (the Olsons farm), we can live through that,” Traci says.

TODAY THE FAMILY CONTINUES to sense Emilee’s presence in their lives, whether in the pink and purple of a prairie sunset or someone mistakenly calling Lucee—now nine years old, the same age as Emilee five years ago—by her older sister’s name.

Traci tells me, too, “It is really hard to believe it has been that long.”

Five years.

But for this mother, the details of the day she lost Emilee remain as clear as the day she first locked eyes with her little girl in China.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the bus crash.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the 2008 bus crash.

FIVE YEARS AGO on February 19, I “knew” that an extended family member was on that same bus Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed rode.

My cousin Joyce Arends’ grandson, 8-year-old Bryce, suffered minor injuries in the crash. Wanting to show my concern, I mailed a book, teddy bear and candy to Bryce as well as a note and memorial gift to Lakeview School.

I received thank yous from Bryce and the school and I’ve saved both.

Bryce told me he’d named his bear Fluffy and was sleeping with him.

The school responded, in part, with this message:

The outpouring of response from across the state, the nation, and even the world has overwhelmed all of us at Lakeview School, but the power of that support has given us strength and has allowed us to begin the long process of healing. Please know that we are all grateful.

I expect on this, the five-year anniversary of the bus crash, that Lakeview School, the Olsons, Javens and Stevens families, and the community remain grateful for the ongoing support of those who remember their children, for Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed truly were all of their children.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Traci Olson