Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One Minnesota family’s emotional story: Graduating during COVID-19 May 20, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2016.

 

FOR WEEKS, WE’VE HEARD and read news stories about the Class of 2020 and the disappointment students feel in missing out on so much of their senior year due to COVID-19. It is the tradition of the graduation ceremony, complete with caps, gowns, speeches and “Pomp and Circumstance,” that seems the greatest loss. And the gathering of family and friends afterward to celebrate.

 

Graduates toss their caps following a past graduation ceremony at Faribault High School. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

All of that said, schools are getting creative with their celebrations. Faribault High School is planning a Graduation Drive Thru to award diplomas. That includes inviting students, over the next two weeks, to walk across an outdoor stage and pose for photos with cut-outs of the school superintendent, principal and others. This will be pulled together in a video for a virtual graduation ceremony.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Westbrook-Walnut Grove High School graduation in 2010.

 

Down in the extreme southwestern corner of Minnesota, Worthington High School is also planning a virtual graduation ceremony followed by a car parade. One vehicle per graduate and family. Rural Nobles County is among the hardest hit in our state by COVID-19 following a virus outbreak in a meat-packing plant. In a county of just under 22,000, there have been 1,394 confirmed cases of the virus (as of Tuesday).

But this isn’t just another list of statistics. My friend Gretchen and her family live in Worthington. And eldest daughter, Katie, graduates this month as valedictorian of the WHS Class of 2020. She is heartbroken. Her mom also feels the emotional let-down of this long-anticipated day.

Gretchen is also an exceptional writer. When I asked her to write about graduation for the blogging ministry I lead at Warner Press, she quickly agreed. The result is a powerful post that tells her family’s story with uncut, raw emotion. I invite you to click here and read through the pain, the disappointment and then, the words of a high school grad wise beyond her years. I promise, you will feel moved by this family’s story. A story that personalizes the challenges for the Class of 2020 in a way you will remember.

 

A Tufts University graduate decorated her graduation hat in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo. There will be no high school or college graduation ceremonies like these this year.

 

I encourage you to leave a comment for Katie and Gretchen on the Warner Press blog post or on the Warner Press Facebook page in addition to here. I am grateful to my friend and her daughter for sharing their thoughts. It is stories like theirs that reveal how COVID-19 is affecting the Class of 2020 in a deeply heart-wrenching way.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part IV: Hanging onto hope after the flood March 17, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: What is it like to lose nearly everything you own in a flood? What is it like to have your life disrupted, to be without a home? This post addresses those questions in this fourth in a series of stories about a Hammond, Minnesota, family that survived a September 2010 flash flood.

An aerial view of Hammond during the flash flood of September 2010. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

FOR TINA MARLOWE and her family, life abruptly changed after the flooding Zumbro River forced them from their home. Those first few days for Tina, her fiancé, two children and in-laws—all of whom lived together in the same house—were charged with emotion, filled with uncertainty.

“Every member of our family has gone through every emotion you can think of,” Tina says. “Desperation and shock the first few days, looking at the destruction to our home, to our friends’ homes, to our favorite ‘watering hole,’ which is also the community gathering place, to our parks, our river bank, the rubbish and filth.

Wonder and fear as to what will happen to us… Where will we go? Who is going to help us? Where am I going to start? What have I lost? What do I have left? How am I going to pay for it all? Will I be able to financially survive in the meantime? What do I tell the kids?”

 

Floodwaters from the Zumbro River reached Hammond's business district. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

The bridge connecting east and west Hammond is barely visible during the flood, which also overtook the town's park. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

TINA’S KIDS AND THE LESSONS THEY’VE LEARNED

For Tina’s children, 16-year-old Cassie and 7-year-old Christian, the flood took a major emotional toll. Christian started having behavioral and concentration problems on the bus and in school. Cassie’s life as a busy teen, running around, making plans, came to a screeching halt.

“They went through the extremes of being angry, then indifferent,” Tina says of her children.

Now that the family has returned to Hammond—they moved back right after Christmas, three months after the flood—the kids are beginning to settle back into normal routines and a normal life.

“They have seen and learned a lot,” Tina says. “I hope that the greatest lesson that they get from this is that family, community, and love are the most powerful tools and assets they will ever have. This is the ONLY thing that will get you through when all else is lost, and is all and everything that you need in life to be secure.

We are Minnesotans. We take care of each other.”

Floodwaters destroyed everything in the basement of the house where Tina, Micheal, Cassie and Christian and Bob and Cathy Mann live. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

Muck surrounds the furnace in the Mann family's basement. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

Flooded appliances in the basement. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

The family's belongings, moved outside to dry after the flood. Photo courtesy of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe.

THE ANGER AND QUESTIONS

A devastating natural disaster like this flood raises many questions and elicits mixed emotions, including anger. Tina has felt her share of anger and I’m allowing her to air her concerns here so that perhaps we can all learn from her experience.

Tina says Hammond, population 230, was neglected and forgotten during the “threat” of the rising river. No one came to help on Thursday night until it was too late, she claims. The evacuation in Hammond occurred many hours after the exodus in nearby Zumbro Falls.

While food and shelter were offered in Hammond, Tina says that did not help her family displaced to a hotel in neighboring Rochester.

“There was no immediate help in the aftermath, and a lot of what was being done didn’t make sense to us. We were left to fend for ourselves for nearly two months,” Tina continues.

Her anger focuses on the government “for not having a better plan, and for ultimately abandoning us.” She was angry, too, at President Barack Obama…”when he was doing diplomatic work, when we felt that a simple acknowledgement and signed declaration seemed so simple.”

She felt a loss of hope “when big brother seems to turn his back on you.”

Yet, Tina says she is grateful and humble for the volunteer help, the donations, the support from neighboring communities.

THE WAITING, THE FUTURE, THE HOPE

Anticipation and anxiety marked the family’s days as they awaited word on financing and rebuilding. They were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

When they finally returned home to Hammond, they felt peace, hope and appreciation.

“But it’s not over yet,” Tina says. “There are still feelings of guilt. So many (people) had damages much worse than us. There are those still waiting for answers.

It’s hard to be one of the first ones home. It’s lonely. Our neighbors’ homes are dark and empty. Every day we hear news of another one leaving or another one deciding to stay. The future is still uncertain.

Our quiet, simple life in the valley has been disrupted. This summer we still won’t be able to enjoy all that we enjoy about our valley because of the loss and destruction.

I hang onto hope and realize the meaning of resilience when I watch the bald eagle fly over the river, still making the valley his home too. I feel a lot like that eagle, fighting extinction—refusing to leave the home I love.”

THE NEXT INSTALLMENT in this series looks at how others have helped Tina and her family get back on their feet.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy and copyright of Micheal Mann & Tina Marlowe