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Minnehaha Academy: #TogetherWeRise

Posted on 29 August 2017 by calvin

An explosion destroyed a section of the school and killed two, but school proves its community is strong and resilient

Minnehaha Academy is working to rise together following a devastating gas explosion at the Upper School (3100 W. River Pkwy.) on Aug. 2 that killed two staff members and destroyed the oldest section of the school facility built in 1913.

Nearly 1,000 people wearing the Minnehaha school color red attended a Unity Walk on Aug. 15. The walk started at the Upper School and ended at the Lower School with a ceremonial raising of the flag back to full mast.

Hiawatha Walkers PresidentPhoto left: Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris greeted each person who walked from the Upper Campus down to the Lower Campus during the Unity Walk on Aug. 15. Over 1,000 people wore the school’s color red and attended the Unity Walk. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

“Two weeks ago we were dealt a blow,” remarked Minnehaha Academy Board Chair David Anderson. “Together we will rise.”

Executive Director of Institutional Advancement Sara Jacobson noted, “It’s important for current students and alums to come together to comfort each other, but also to celebrate the community that we have. The Unity Walk enabled us to thank the first responders, demonstrate our commitment to each other in this tragedy, and most importantly, begin to look forward to what God has for Minnehaha Academy in the future.”

The school has begun tagging its own social media posts with the hashtag #TogetherWeRise and encouraging others to use it, as well.

“We chose #TogetherWeRise as a hashtag for this experience because we are a caring community, and we know that together we will become stronger, we will grow, we will rise up to be a greater school and to show the community what we can do together,” explained Jacobson.

Hiawatha Flag RaisingPhoto left: After two weeks with the flag at half-mast, it was brought back to full-mast during a special ceremony on Tues., Aug. 15 at the Lower Campus as the Minnehaha Academy sought to move forward together from a devastating gas explosion. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris observed, “Together is the pivotal and transformative word. I am confident we will rise from the devastating blow we have sustained as a community because our shared experience of pain and loss has drawn us closer together. So with God’s help, I believe we will rise in unity, with a renewed sense of purpose, hope, and commitment to our mission.”

While the start of the school year will be different, Upper Campus Principal Jason Wenschlag has been assuring students, “We’re going to be ok.”

“It’s going to be a great year. It’s going to bring us together,” said Wenschlag. “We’re going to rally around this. We’re going to be sure to carry on the same traditions and experiences our kids expect.”

Hiawatha Police HarrisPhoto right: The Unity Walk gave Minnehaha Academy the opportunity to come together and thank first responders who arrived within minutes of the explosion that rocked the campus, destroyed the center section of the school and killed two staff members on Aug. 2. Here President Donna Harris thanks members of the Minneapolis Police Department. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

On Wed., Aug. 23, the school announced that classes for its high school students school announced that classes for its high school students would be held at 1345 Mendota Heights Rd. in Mendota Heights in the former Sanford-Brown College building. The school has signed a two-year lease at the site which is eight miles south of the Minnehaha campus, and hopes to be back in a permanent location as soon as possible.

Hiawatha BandPhoto right: Members of the Minnehaha Academy pep band, old and new, played during the Unity Walk on Aug. 15, just two weeks after an explosion damaged the Upper Campus and killed two staff members. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

“The process for assessing the structural soundness of our Upper School and conducting rebuilding analyses with a partially destroyed structure is complex, so it is prudent and beneficial for Minnehaha to have a longer time window at the Mendota Heights site if needed,” stated Harris.

Moving forward
Wenschlag was out of town in Chicago when he received the news of the explosion. He hopped on the next flight and was back at Minnehaha Academy by 2pm, but found there was little he could do except pray for those unaccounted for as the authorities were managing the scene of the blast.

Master Mechanical workers had been moving a gas main at the campus, and those inside were given just a few minutes notice before the structure exploded.

Hiawatha Red HeartPhoto left: A fence surrounding Minnehaha’s Upper Campus keeps people out of the property as the investigation is underway. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

The explosion rocked and set ablaze the center of the upper school at 10:23am, causing a partial collapse of two floors over a sub-basement. After the fire was extinguished, an intensive operation began to find the missing. By the end of the first day, Minnehaha knew it had lost 17-year receptionist Ruth Berg, as well as alum and staff member John Carlson. Nine were injured and transported to the hospital with fractures, cuts and head wounds, including assistant boy’s soccer coach Bryan Duffey.

Since that first day, Principal Wenschlag has been very busy, working long days and moving forward on short nights of sleep.

“We have kids and teachers, but we’re basically starting a school,” observed Wenschlag. They have to find a building to hold classes in, set up food service, arrange for furniture and more.

Classes at the Upper Academy will start two weeks late on Tues., Sept. 5. With some juggling of the schedule, including the removal of the week-long Cultural Field Experience, the 360 upper-class students at Minnehaha will end their school year at the same time as the Lower and Middle students in June.

Meanwhile, the school has continued to move forward as it can. Athletic teams started practicing on Aug. 14 as scheduled. Administrative staff who were housed at the Upper School will be located in temporary offices outside the Lower/Middle School. All faculty were welcomed back to work on Aug. 15.

How to help
The school has received many offers of support from Minneapolis and St. Paul, where 79% of their students come from. To some the school is saying, “We don’t know how you can help now, but we’ll know later,” said Wenschlag.

A letter from President Donna Harris outlined three ways to help Minnehaha:
“1. Pray. Continue to pray for everyone who was involved in the incident, for the families of John Carlson and Ruth Berg, for our leadership team as we make decisions, for our staff, faculty, and students, and for the future rebuilding of the Upper School.
“2. Help. Let us know your expertise. Sign up to let us know how you can be of service during this time.
“3. Give. In the rebuilding process, we will make an even better Minnehaha. Your gifts will support the school in this transition and cover expenses beyond our insurance coverage.”

Neighbors have offered their help and their support, and several local businesses donated food and coffee. “We are grateful to be in a caring Minnehaha community, but also in a caring Longfellow community,” said Jacobson.

Strong and resilient community
Before the Aug. 15 Unity Walk, Richard Bauer didn’t truly understand what it was about Minnehaha Academy that connected its past and present students, parents, and teachers. But after the walk, Bauer realized how tightly knit the Minnehaha Academy family is. His wife’s maternal grandfather served on the school board, and the following generations have attended school there, including Bauer’s two children. One is currently a senior at Minnehaha.

“It is one of those jewels in plain sight,” said the Bryn Mawr resident.

As he looked around at the crowd gathered for the Unity Walk, Bauer commented, “This is a reflection of Minnehaha—Minnehaha before and Minnehaha today.”

Bauer added, “I’m incredibly hopeful for what the future looks like as they continue to unravel what happened—but also as they continue to move forward as a community of faith—that all the pieces will come together.”

“We are fortunate to have a strong, resilient community and a faithful God,” said Jacobson.

“We believe that the school will become even greater through this experience, and we move forward knowing that our school is so much more than a building—it’s a community. Students and families come to Minnehaha because of the tremendous academic experience delivered by our amazing faculty. That doesn’t change.”

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