Individuals viewing the remains of Aim High Academy's practice center.

Tulsa, OK,
12
November
2015
|
07:00 AM
America/Chicago

Preparing for the Storm

Jennifer Patterson knows what it’s like to lose something special. When she was five-years-old, her playhouse was destroyed by a tornado. The remains were found in the neighbor’s yard, scattered like matchsticks.

Growing up in tornado alley, you learn at an early age to plan and drill – especially for Oklahoma tornados.

March 25, 2015 was just another day at work for Jennifer, the executive director of nonprofit Aim High Academy. She didn’t anticipate anything unusual, just the daily ritual of running a nonprofit in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The day was filled with helping young girls prepare for a state gymnastics competition. They had trained all season, and the gym was packed with more than 60 girls polishing off preparations to their routines.

Aim High Academy is a faith-based nonprofit that uses gymnastics to give children hope and confidence to succeed in life. Established in 2007 by Patterson, the organization teaches more than 250 children each week, and sponsors a competitive gymnastics team of 40 girls who take part in competitions across the country.

Patterson knew the Tulsa area was under a weather watch, but that’s nothing unusual for Oklahoma. “It was a typical spring day for us,” she remembers.

While sitting in her office, she heard the weather radio alarm activate. The alert did not include the Tulsa area, but it heightened awareness and reminded her to review disaster plans with Aim High’s staff. She quietly made the rounds, making sure each staff person remembered what to do and where to go if the weather deteriorated.

“I was keeping my eyes on the clouds and they began to turn green,” she said. One of the parents shared weather reports of possible rotations to our west.”

Suddenly she had an urge: “Get them to the basement now.” As she turned to take action, the weather radio activated again and the preparation began to pay off. Instructors quickly and efficiently moved all students to the basement of the gym.

As they gathered in the cold dampness, the lights flickered, then went out. Children began to panic. One of the instructors pulled out a guitar and started playing music to soothe them. The wind and noise increased outside, and the group began to pray in the darkness.

Several instructors waited upstairs to help members of the neighborhood get safely below ground. Being able to step into a basement is a rarity in the state. In fact, because of Oklahoma’s soft, red clay, the Aim High gymnasium was one of less than one percent of structures in the state with a basement.

The roof began to peel away and disappear, while loud creaks, cracks and bangs sounded. A rushing wind left a vivid memory for Jennifer. “I felt as if my insides were lifting up, and then there was silence,” she said. “All that was left was the sound of crying children and running water.”

Jennifer Patterson viewing the remains of Aim High Academy's practice center following a tornado.

When Jennifer finally climbed the stairs and opened the basement door, a wall of water gushed in from broken pipes and torrential rain. The sight of clouds and lightning was unnerving, especially when she had expected to see a roof overhead. Large portions of the building had collapsed around them.

She stood in shock looking at the sight around her, silently thanking God for the safety he had provided for the many children below. A calm came over Jennifer and she descended back to the basement with a smile and reassurances for the young gymnasts.

Remains of Aim High Academy's practice center following a tornado.

When rescue crews arrived and saw the destruction, they feared the worst. “Then everybody realized what a miracle it was,” Tulsa Fire Department Captain Toby Houck told a FOX 23 television news reporter.

They found everyone safe and unharmed in the basement. Water had risen to most of the girls’ knees. Firefighters quickly shed their own coats, wrapped them around the children and carried them one-by-one to safety.

“The compassion and tenderness the firefighters showed our students was overwhelming,” Jennifer said. “For a child that had just experienced the trauma of a disaster, having a firefighter angel carry them to safety and the arms of their parents was very comforting.”

Not one person out of the more than 60 who weathered the storm in the collapsed gymnasium sustained injuries.

That tenderness played itself out again in June when State Farm provided a disaster recovery grant to Aim High Academy. Tulsa firefighters were reunited for the first time with the children they had saved. Unscripted and without warning, the little gymnasts rushed across a room at a hotel ballroom and took turns embracing and thanking those who had saved them. News media, legislators and other public figures attending the event were visibly moved, several brought to tears.

While she’s back to her daily workday ritual, Jennifer remains vigilant. She believes in miracles and in being prepared. Besides staying on top of the best exit and safe routes, she keeps a storm kit on hand. It contains essentials that could be useful during and after a disaster.

Armed with her resources and faith, Jennifer is ready to do cartwheels around any challenge – just like her talented young performers do every time they take to the floor.