By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
MOORE — Terrie Vicknair finally doesn’t have to worry about safety of the Head Start children under her care.
During her tenure with Moore Head Start, she has seen multiple tornadoes hit the facility or very near the facility.
Crossroads Youth & Family Services Inc. has operated the Moore Head Start program for the past decade, but even before that ownership, tornadoes were an issue, Crossroads Executive Director Lisa Winters said.
While no children have been injured, the Head Start facility has taken serious damage from storms.
On May 3, 1999, the church housing the Moore Head Start was destroyed. The church rebuilt, but no classrooms were included for the Head Start program. The church allowed two mobile classroom units to be set up on the property at 12th Street and Interstate 35.
In 2003, two weeks before Crossroads was set to take over the program, those mobile classrooms were destroyed in a tornado.
“We had a homebound program for two years after that,” Winters said. “We looked everywhere trying to find a facility.”
Then a 7,000-square-foot church came up for sale at a great price. That church is the current location of the Moore Head Start and Early Head Start programs at Fourth Street and Janeway Avenue.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Winters said.
On May 20, Crossroads staff and leadership learned that a tornado was heading toward Moore and the Head Start facility was located in the proposed path of the storm. Winters said it was a feeling she never wants to have again.
“It was just heart-stopping,” she said. “You didn’t know what the outcome would be.”
Head Start Program Director Anthony Stafford agrees.
“With any storm, at a certain point, you lose cell phone contact,” Stafford said.
That contact can be out for a time as emergency calls flood the air waves.
The Crossroads Head Start facility is just four blocks away from the 7-Eleven that was destroyed in the May 20 tornado, killing three people.
The children, teachers and staff took shelter in an interior room to wait out the storm.
Vicknair, who is the education coordinator, and Moore Head Start Director Cari Dunkle monitored the weather and communicated with the outside while teachers entertained the children. Teachers told the children, who range in age from infants to age 4, that they were “camping out.”
Dunkle and Vicknair strapped the doors shut for added protection and when the storm was close, those doors were flopping, trying to open.
That’s a scary moment children at the Moore Head Start will not have to experience again — Crossroads has built a $98,000 tornado safe room with FEMA-approved, tornado-safe doors that triple lock.
However, the close call on May 20 is not the end of the story. When another tornado hit May 31, the center sustained $150,000 worth of damage.
“It took out a playground and our roof,” Winters said. “We were closed all summer.”
Fortunately, that storm hit late enough in the day and no one was at the facility. But Winters and her staff had had enough.
Winters said her committed thought was, “We’re going to fund the money to do a tornado shelter in Moore.”
Federal approval was required, meaning lots of hoops to jump through, but the U.S. Health and Human Services federal employees who represent the Head Start program for Region 6 were wonderful and helped Crossroads meet all the deadlines, Winters said.
Two years earlier, the agency had tried to build a shelter and had prepared plans so the project was shovel ready. But federal requirements had increased the proposed cost back and the money wasn’t available.
The new shelter has space for children and staff, but it is not a public shelter. Only children and Head Start teachers and staff can take shelter there.
Winters said the next hurdle is to establish policy. Once those tornado-safe doors are triple locked, they cannot be opened without compromising the safety of the children.
While parents can pick children up and take them home, Head Start staff are hoping children without a safe place to shelter will remain in their care until the danger has passed.
Six families and three Head Start staff members were displaced by the May 20 tornado. Donations poured in from across the nation to help.
Head Start children are already living in low-income or poverty-level circumstances.
Winters and her staff are glad the children at Moore will be safe from future storms.
In addition to writing policy, a future challenge will be to build storm shelters for each Head Start location managed by Crossroads Youth & Family Services.
Winters declined to speculate where the next location will being, saying that’s a decision her board will have to make. Crossroads operates Head Start programs in four counties.
The Moore Head Start has already had its first “storm practice,” and all of the children and staff — even those on the playground — were safely locked into the new shelter within three minutes, Dunkle said. Teachers made the drill a game. Because the word “tornado” has become so emotionally charged for Moore children, the term “severe weather” was used instead.
Winters and Stafford said the red tape and hurdles are worth the cost of knowing the children are safe.