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Georgia 4-H’ers turn tragedy into gold medal venture

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

When a tornado ripped through Dylan Brooks’ house in 2004, Walt Disney World wasn’t exactly the first thing on his mind. But more than a year and a half later, the Florida theme park would connect him to that traumatic day.

On Sept. 13, 2004, at Madison County Middle School, it was an early-release day. “It was really cloudy and really rainy,” Brooks remembered.

As tornado warnings flashed across the county, he and his family left home for his grandparents’ better-built house. When they finally got back home, they found their house destroyed.

Back at the middle school, John Scott was gearing up for a football game that afternoon. That’s when a tornado started tearing through the area. In another part of the county, the tornado almost killed Samantha Wood’s best friend and her family. And Steven Goldman said his “dad’s co-worker and one of his real good friends lost their houses.”

All four students are now eighth-graders. Together, through the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension 4-H program, they entered a project on tornado awareness and survival in the Christopher Columbus Awards.

That’s where Disney World comes in. As one of eight national finalists, the group traveled to Orlando, Fla., on May 28.

The Christopher Columbus Awards program (www.columbusfdn.org) is a national competition that taps the natural curiosity and creativity of kids. It’s designed for sixth- through eighth- grade students. A team of three or four students must identify a problem in the community and devise a solution that requires them to obtain hands-on experience with the scientific process.

The Madison County team planned an education program to help their community prepare for a tornado. They developed a tornado survival kit that includes identification bracelets and safety shoes, items the students considered most important, especially after the storm passed.

They also designed a brochure and made a video in an effort to place in a competition they had learned about only this year, said Beth Scott-Brown, John Scott’s mother, who helped chaperon their trip.

“This is the first 4-H group, and they made it all the way,” she said.

Their coach, Jacqueline Nunn, is a sophomore at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga. “It’s very, very exciting,” she said. “I’m very proud of them. I know how hard they worked.”

On Tuesday, May 30, the 4-H’ers faced the judges in Orlando. They were “the only 4-H Club in the nation” to do so, said Cheryl Varnadoe, a UGA Extension 4-H specialist. On Thursday, June 1, they learned how they fared.

Through a thunderstorm of confetti, the 4-H team claimed the gold. They are one of two gold medal winning teams, and as a team they received a $2,000 savings bond.

The team from Danielsville, Ga., had faced middle school students from Hesperia, Calif.; Colonia, N.J.; Levittown, N.Y.; Bexley, Ohio; Chesterland, Ohio; Whiteface, Texas; and Stoughton, Wis. And before their trip to Orlando, they faced Varnadoe and Bo Ryles, the Georgia 4-H youth leader.

“On Sept. 13, 2004, a tornado ripped through Madison County,” Brooks said as the group started their presentation. “It was one of three in the last five years.”

This number is especially important, considering that 38.4 percent of homes in the county are manufactured homes, Brooks continued.

Nearly 1,000 tornados hit the United States each year, and Georgia is eighth in the nation for tornadoes. State climatologist David Stooksbury said the state has had 122 in the past five years.

“We developed and presented education programs, and we educated our community on steps to follow to survive a tornado,” Goldman said.

“We’re keeping our community from getting blown away by a tornado,” they said as their presentation concluded. And then Wood stepped into sparkling ruby slippers and wrapped it up: “We’re not in Georgia anymore.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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