LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Much of the Natural State is on the road to recovery after five tornadoes rattled Arkansas on March 31, including a specialized children’s center.
Thousands of people and dozens of businesses were displaced in the storms, and ACCESS Early Childhood had to rely on the community for temporary space after the school was damaged by the storm.
Monica Garner-Smith, ACCESS Director of Early Childhood, greeted each returning child Monday with “Good morning! Welcome back!” while holding a sign with the words “Welcome Home!”
Just being there was a sign of recovery as 200 students walked back through open doors for the first time in a month.
“The smiles were huge on the parents on the kids, and they kept pointing to the building saying, ‘It’s fixed. It’s fixed,’” Garner-Smith said.
ACCESS Early Childhood, a preschool and therapy campus for children with developmental delays and disabilities, wasn’t just near a tornado on March 31. It was under the EF-3 twister that slammed the capital city.
For Tori Horton, annual programs coordinator and parent at ACCESS, coming back was “a mix of emotions.”
“It’s very happy being back, and it feels like home here for a lot of us,” she said. “And then on the other hand, it’s driving up and seeing just the devastation around the area and how lucky we were that everyone was safe that day.”
Horton was sheltered with her 10-month-old son and other babies inside the ACCESS ice room while a twister tore up everything outside.
“It was very scary, not just from being an employee but being a parent and having a kid here when the tornado happened,” Horton explained. “It didn’t hit me until I saw that my car had a pretty large beam of wood that had gone through my sunroof and had gone into my son’s car seat, and it was hard to see.”
Several trees fell on the building and campus grounds. Shingles were ripped off, and a sensory room suffered water damage the day after it was completed and shown to potential therapists the school sought to join its staff.
As volunteers helped clear debris, kids ages 6 and under had no place to go for ten days.
“We knew that we needed to get services for the children and services for the parents,” Garner Smith said, adding that the school accepted help from Fellowship Midtown Church, where faculty helped kids for over two weeks.
“We used their Sunday school classrooms, we used their gym, we used their cafeteria. It was wonderful,” Garner-Smith said. “You do see the beauty of that. The beauty of the kindness of your community when you’re in the middle of something traumatic like this.”
While the students and staff are back home at ACCESS Early Childhood, it will be months before things return to normal. The teacher’s lounge and other rooms are being repurposed for physical and occupational therapy, and some outdoor play spaces are currently off-limits.
So much has been redone at the preschool and therapy campus, like the landscaping and many classrooms, but it does not take long to find boarded-up areas like the therapy gym, which will need ceilings, AC systems, and specialized medical equipment replaced. The gym is expected to be under construction for another two or three months.
“A lot of the kids didn’t even realize it was anything other than a drill,” Horton said with tears on her face. “I feel like this place was covered. God completely had us protected.”
Because ACCESS is nonprofit, it will be even more difficult to pay off their loans. Donations can be made on their website.