COTTONWOOD - Nearing the third anniversary of the fatal bus crash that killed four Lakeview students, smiles and laughter replaced tears and grief as the strong community came together Friday at the Lakeview school.
For those left behind, it was a day to remember and a day to celebrate the lives of the fallen students - Emilee Olson, Reed Stevens, and brothers Jesse and Hunter Javens.
"It's a continuation on the journey of hope," Lakeview counselor Shelly Buntjer said. "It's a time to give back to everybody who gave to us. We're celebrating the journey."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Traci Olson, mother of Emilee Olson, proudly wore a shirt honoring all four children whose lives were lost in the 2008 bus crash.
With a packed gymnasium at the Lakeview School, "Crunch," the Minnesota Timberwolves mascot provided entertainment, dunking basketballs and leading a variety of other exciting activities.
"That was awesome," said Rita Javens, who lost two sons in the bus crash. "It was good to lift the kids' spirits on the day that they remember their friends. It was very positive."
Kandy Stevens said she thought her son Reed would have loved the celebration. Afterwards, two of Reed's best friends - Kayla Anderson and Quinn Fenger - gave hugs to Stevens and her husband Dan.
"It's always going to be hard especially on the anniversary, but we try to remember the way Reed lived and not how he died. To have all four of them remembered is really important."
Traci and Charlie Olson, parents of Emilee, were also at the action-packed celebration. Traci was one of the main coordinators of the event.
"Traci takes care of a lot of stuff," Charlie said.
"Krista Remiger and Shelly Buntjer do a lot, too.
Traci is just appreciative of the support the school and community have given to the families of the four students. She also considers hugs from Emilee's classmates to be priceless.
"We're so thankful that the school is willing to embrace celebrations like this," Traci said. "The community of Cottonwood is amazing."
The Memorial Fund and the Lakeview Booster Club joined forces to bring in "Crunch," who along with Lakeview principal Phil Lienemann, directed activities like the sixth-grade tug-of-war contest, the hula hoop construction race, second-grade hula hoop escape contest and the kindergarten hoppity-hop contest.
"It was pretty cool," said Coltan Varpness of the festivities. "I liked it when 'Crunch' was dunking the ball. I also liked winning the sixth-grade tug-of-war."
Sixth-grader Erin Stevens, who lost her brother Reed and her friend Emilee three years ago, weighed the celebration.
"It was good, but I'd still rather have those four kids here than to ever meet 'Crunch' in my whole life," Erin said.
Sixth-grader Genesis Rodriguez agreed.
"I'd rather have them here at the celebration with us," Rodriguez said. "But as long as we're strong, nothing will hurt us."
In addition to the impressive upside down garbage can drumline routine, two dance performances were a hit. The "Mystiques" - the girls high school dance team - danced in the dark wearing glow sticks, while the "Men-Stiques" - a squad made up of junior and senior boys - put on their own choreographed dance, which clearly got the approval of the crowd.
"Everything just fell together," Traci said. "It's nice that it was also Snow Week so we could tie everything together."
For the past two weeks, students were asked to bring in donations as part of a community drive. Hy-Vee donated 25 reusable grocery bags. Cottonwood Co-op supplied water and vegetables and the Dental Excellence donated toothpaste and toothbrushes.
"All the supplies will go to families in our own community that we know of that can use them," Traci said. "I think we have 15 families. It's nice that everything will go locally."
At lunchtime, students and staff were served "Tribute Cupcakes," frosted in bright, fun colors.
"I thought the whole day was amazing," sixth-grader Katelynn Murphy said.
Today, on the actual anniversary (Feb. 19), Charlie Olson will make a bittersweet phone call.
"I'll call the radio station and request a song," Charlie said. "I'll ask them to play 'You'll Be in My Heart' by Phil Collins."
And everyone in the Cottonwood area will be singing along.