June 03, 2013

By Mindy Brooks

Being Here for Each Other in Oklahoma

Mindy Brooks is Director of Education and Research for Sesame Workshop.

My first vivid memory of a tornado was the day my sister was born. I was 4 years old, it was nighttime, and I was alone with my grandmother who spent the majority of her adult years in Papua New Guinea. I vividly remember hearing the voice of Gary England (an Oklahoma meteorologist) giving advice about the storm and telling us to quickly take cover. To my preschool brain it was targeted solely for us and our house. I remember the panic my grandma expressed as she was new to tornados. I remember talking about how to take cover, securing the mattress over us in the bathtub, and holding on to her. And, even more vividly, I remember the feeling of fear that my parents weren’t there to protect me.

Tornados aren’t new to Oklahomans. We have multiple warnings a year and taking cover was, and is, a frequent process. We practice drills in school, all the way through high school. In my family, we receive notices from my dad about tornadic weather and we are on alert about when we need to take cover.  It was something we don’t take lightly and something to always be prepared for. We know the drill; when the sirens start blowing, we grab our dog and a couple personal possessions and drive to the local university or church to take cover in the basements. In situations where we don’t have time to drive to a basement, we grab our mattresses for cover, put on bicycle helmets, and hunker down in the hallway (our current house has windows in every room). We hope and pray for the best and then ride out the storm not knowing if our lives will be the same again.

It was that kind of day on May 20th, except this time I was in New York and my family and loved ones were taking cover without me. We knew the tornado threat was high as we had ongoing family text messages the night before. As national news was breaking about the tornado, I was trying to connect with my family.  One of my sisters, a third grade teacher, was doing her best to keep her students safe and calm as they went into tornado lockdown multiple times throughout the day. As my sister was on lockdown, my friends, who live in Moore and right in the tornado zone, were rushing to find their children and recounts it as the longest hour of their lives. One was frantically driving to their 4-year-olds preschool only to be forced to pull off the road and watch the tornado tear apart Moore.  The other one was forced to run 3 miles to their home because the tornado had destroyed everything. Thankfully, their children are safe and the house is standing. The tornado hit 300 yards away from her front door. Yet so many others were not so fortunate.

Tragedies like this remind us of the importance of tornado preparedness. Although my friends’ 4-year- old is safe, she has been left with many “why” questions. It reminds me that children need to know what to do and why readiness is important. They also need to know why it happens, especially as parents all around Oklahoma struggle with what to tell their preschoolers. Words can’t take away the fear, the mixed emotions, and the questions, but they can help heal and strengthen us for future emergencies. That is why we, at Sesame Workshop, provide resources for families – to help families prepare and to also help them recover. The Here For Each Other outreach initiative can help parents with young children find the words they need to help their children cope during this difficult time.

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