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Students honored for tornado cleanup

– In the months after two tornadoes hit Kokomo homes and businesses Nov. 17, an estimated 1,500 volunteers helped residents get back on their feet.

The efforts of some 400 Kokomo-area students on the day after the destruction, however, inspired many to help their neighbors, creating a groundswell of volunteer efforts that spread throughout the city.

Nearly eight months to the day that a tornado swept through neighborhoods and businesses on East Hoffer Street, city and local civic officials commemorated the efforts of those students with a historical marker near the site of the future UAW Local No. 685.

The sign commemorates the efforts that contributed to the cleanup of the most damaged neighborhoods in Kokomo, including the Maple Crest area, Bell and Poplar Street neighborhood and the Cedar Crest subdivision, in addition to the East Hoffer Street business corridor.

Bridges Outreach Chief Professional Officer Travis Taflinger remembers the efforts of the children well, as hundreds of students combed the streets to pick up debris, hitting every road near Garden Square Apartments in a matter of hours.

“It speaks to the type of neighbors there are in Kokomo,” he said. “They really do care about the person that lives across the street. After the tornado came through, little kids from Garden Square were out in their Carharts picking up stuff.

“That was the catalyst that got us thinking, ‘Man, if kids are out there, there’s a lot more coming,’ ” he added. “They all said they would do whatever you want us to do. That attitude was awesome and it lasted a long time.”

Those efforts should not be forgotten, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said, inspiring residents of all ages to come together, “Kokomo Strong,” as the marker states.

“I always say it’s important that we tell our story,” he said. “It was a tragic day, but you can find the good that comes with that. I think that’s one of the good stories that came from this.”

United Way of Howard County President Abbie Smith said the efforts of those students provided proof that leadership in the community can come from many different sources.

“It’s really powerful,” she said. “We often think that leadership comes from the top down, but when you look around you, there are leaders everywhere, especially with our younger citizens.

“They care about their friends and their neighbors and oftentimes we can get a lot done when we use kids as a vehicle, because they get it.”