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'We're all small towns' — Students sacrifice trip, give to flood victim who lost her home
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'We're all small towns' — Students sacrifice trip, give to flood victim who lost her home

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Ponca Creek was coming her way, and she didn’t have much time.

By noon on March 13, after the school in Niobrara had closed early and Stephanie McClellan made it home to Verdel, the swelling creek had already rushed across the road and was pooling in her yard.

“And by 1:30, I was walking in water, carrying things out of my house,” the single mother of three said.

The water would get knee-deep on her first floor. The sewer would back up and spray out of her toilet. She would lose just about everything -- her furniture, her appliances -- that she couldn’t fit into her car.

McClellan and her girls and her sister and her family ended up living in the grain elevator her mother owns, nine of them sharing air mattresses on a concrete floor. No water. No plumbing.

“People that lived in town would let us shower at their houses,” she said. “And I’ve never been so thankful for a porta-potty.”

The damage became clear when the water receded. Ponca Creek had taken a toll on her home’s foundation. The center of the house is bowing. They’ve had to gut the entire first floor. The preschool employee doesn’t know if she can afford to fix it, doesn’t know if it can even be saved.

The flooding left other scars that aren’t as visible. She’s worried about her daughters, ages 10, 8 and 4.

“They’ve gone through a lot. They’re having trouble adjusting. They’re not sleeping well at night.”

But an unexpected bright spot appeared in their lives recently, delivered by a group of high school students nearly 100 miles upriver.

* * *

The spring trip is the annual highlight for the members of the North Central Sports Club, student-athletes from Rock County High School in Bassett and Keya Paha County High School in Springview.

“The kids always look forward to it,” said Tricia Anderson, one of the club’s two sponsors. “All year long I get questions: ‘Where are we going this year? When are we going?’”

It’s a reward for the students, who maintained eligibility by lettering in at least two sports and raised money by hosting youth volleyball tournaments, selling concessions and convincing community members to pledge money for three-pointers and wrestling pins.

They traveled to Mount Rushmore last year. They’ve watched a Creighton basketball game in Omaha, toured Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

“We live far from many big towns,” Anderson said. “To experience that, to go to a city, to stay in a hotel, is a rare treat for some of the kids.”

They were set to go to Kearney last month, with plans to hit an escape room and a bowling alley. “All the fun stuff,” Anderson said. But then, on the Saturday after the flooding started and days before the trip, she got an email.

A student from Springview was wondering if they could cancel their annual trip -- and use the money instead to help those hit by the flooding.

“She said it didn’t feel right going and doing something fun for ourselves when so many people are suffering.”

* * *

Sydney Linse was ready for the trip to Kearney. All the students in the club were.

“But then the storm happened,” the Keya Paha County High School junior and volleyball and basketball player said.

It was an easy decision for her. People needed help. She started contacting other club members with her idea. Most were on board, but others -- especially some seniors, who wouldn’t get another trip -- took time to decide.

“But they liked the idea,” Linse said. “All of us were looking forward to the trip, but we knew it was more important to help others out.”

After Anderson got Linse’s email that Saturday, she spoke to the club’s other sponsor, Mike Stephen. The idea made sense: Bassett and Springview were spared from the flooding, but their neighbors downstream were hit hard.

The schools in Bassett and Springview and Niobrara are counties apart, but they belong to the same sprawling activities conference. The students have grown up together, competing in speech tournaments and volleyball matches and basketball games. And some of them were struggling now.

“They knew those kids,” Anderson said. “They know those families. Some of them are related. We’re all small towns trying to be neighborly.”

The club’s sponsors liked the plan, but knew it wasn’t their decision to make. So they put the idea to a vote.

The North Central Sports Club decided overwhelmingly to skip the trip and give $5,000 -- more than the day in Kearney would have cost -- to help a flood victim.

And when Anderson later heard about who the money would help, she teared up.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to do something.’”

* * *

The small school in Niobrara -- 230 students from preschool to 12th grade -- escaped the force of the flooding that swept several nearby businesses off their lots and into the Missouri.

The water came within 3 feet of the school, and it buried the football field. They’ll have to replace lights and rebuild the crow’s nest, said Superintendent Margaret Sandoz.

“There’s so much debris, other people’s belongings that got floated down the river.”

The nearby Mormon Canal Bridge was ripped away, severing the district. Students and staff who had lived just minutes from school now must make circuitous trips that take more than an hour.

The school was closed for more than a week, but they’re trying to return to normal.

“We’re holding strong,” Sandoz said. “We’re trying to accommodate our families the best we can.”

But she knows who’s struggling, and when she got the call from the North Central Sports Club, asking who could benefit from a $5,000 gift, she and other staffers knew who to help.

They knew the flood had taken almost everything from McClellan and her daughters, all students at the school. They also knew the preschool’s family coordinator works hard, Sandoz said. She deserved this.

“They pretty much had lost a lot of their clothing and a lot of furniture and basically their whole entire home. We knew she needed help, and we decided she would be just the perfect person to receive this.”

But there was more. The school owned a teacherage, and they got to work cleaning up the empty house, getting McClellan and her girls off the concrete floor of the grain elevator.

McClellan cried when she heard about the home and the $5,000. She has to move again by June -- when the new physical education teacher arrives -- but the unexpected money will help her find a new start.

“It was a big stress relief,” she said. “I did not know it was coming.”

Upriver, the student who started it all took a break from history class Tuesday to talk about the meaning of what the club did. The other students seemed happy with their decision, Linse said.

“It is going to help us out in the longer run in life, rather than going on the trip. It teaches you it’s better to give than to receive.”

Nebraska flooding photos, video

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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