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Help starts to make its way to Vernonia flood victims

by: Kenneth Cox, 
A picture taken by Vernonia School District Superintendent Kenneth Cox shows the high school’s parking lot under water after the nearby Nehalem River flooded the area.

Vernonia School District students may have returned to class - in Scappoose and Mist - but their hometown schools face an uncertain future.

All three of the town's schools, located about 1,000 feet from the Nehalem River, suffered extensive flood damage during a recent wind and rain storm.

Vernonia High School, which is four feet under water, may be a total loss. The river's fast four-foot surge left waterlogged computers, mud-covered gym floors, ruined books and mountains of trash in its wake. And the high school gym floor is warped and peeling.

Fifty miles away in Lake Oswego, a seasoned educator is one of many residents heeding the call for help.

George Benson, former superintendent of the Centennial School District in Portland, is working to procure 16 to 20 furnished portable classrooms in time for the Jan. 7 resumption of classes in Vernonia.

'It's important to bring the kids back,' Benson said. '(The district) doesn't want them staying out of town too long.'

Benson, who retired in 1996 and now serves as an administrative consultant, also worked for the Lake Oswego School District for six months while Superintendent Bill Korach underwent treatment for cancer.

'He provided extra back-up for projects,' Korach said. 'He's a great guy.'

Benson spoke to the Lake Oswego Rotary Club about Vernonia's plight at a luncheon Saturday. At the meeting, he collected toys, food and $3,000 in donations to help the district.

On Tuesday, he dropped off the goods during one of his regular trips to the quiet logging town.

If there's anyone who knows a thing or two about flooding, it's Benson. He worked as in a resource capacity to help Vernonia schools bounce back from a major flood in 1996.

'I've worked with many districts and I think I got the most satisfaction from the time I spent in Vernonia,' Benson said.

This time around, he's simply a volunteer lending a hand.

'When I heard about this flood it really hit me hard,' Benson said. 'What a mess we had 10 years ago and what they went through … They worked so hard to get their schools back and to lose everything again is pretty traumatic.'

Districts across the state, including Lake Oswego School District, have pledged aid in the form of teaching equipment, furniture and textbooks.

'I've talked to the principals and everyone has some idea of what they could provide,' Korach said. 'We're just waiting to get an accurate listing of what they need.'

Vernonia officials are in the process of taking inventory of items each school needs to replace, Benson said.

The district hopes to get a cafeteria up and running so students can eat a hot lunch.

'It's amazing what water can do to buildings,' Benson said.

But the damage goes beyond school facilities, and puts many of Vernonia's needy families in a financial crunch. About half of the district's 700 students qualify for free or reduced lunches, Benson said. Many are now displaced.

While administrators are worried about getting kids back to school, the kids are worried about where they'll sleep at night, Benson said.

'It's putting a lot of stress on everybody,' he said.

'What the school district really needs is cash … Money would allow the district to reach out to those families,' he added.

So with the help of the Confederation of School Ad-ministrators and the Northwest Education Service District, Benson has set out to connect willing donors with Vernonia Superintendent Kenneth Cox.

The most important priority is getting students back on track.

'Going to school is big for these kids,' Benson said. 'It gives them security and a warm environment and meals. To lose that anytime is pretty traumatic.'

In other Vernonia-related news:

n Student musicians at Lake Oswego High School raised $1,000 for Vernonia High School during a winter band concert last week.

The money, donated by those in the audience, will help the school's music program recover from its loss of instruments (including a set of timpani) and half of its music library.

Vernonia's band director is Rob Izzett, who student-taught at LOHS under band director David Matthys two years ago.

n Carol Winston, owner of Accessories from the Heart in Lake Oswego, donated $1,900 in products to the Vernonia School District. The materials included Vera Bradley handbags for teachers and staff and backpacks for students.

'It doesn't matter who gets them, it was more important I gave something to help those poor women,' Winston said.

To donate to school recovery, send checks to: Vernonia School District, 475 Bridge St., Vernonia, Ore., 97064. In the memo, write 'flood recovery.'