VERDIGRE, Neb. — After Verdigre endured massive flooding last March, nine local youngsters gave their hometown a special gift — a book.
But not just any book.
The third and fourth graders at the Verdigre Public Schools compiled the stories of selected residents who suffered massive losses, from livestock deaths to inundated homes and businesses. The youngsters also collected photos submitted from area residents.
Verdigre second-grade teacher Bev Krutz, who also works with the Title I and Accelerated Reading Program, oversaw the project. However, she emphasized it was the students’ effort all the way in terms of launching the book, finding a publisher, conducting the interviews and doing the work of putting together the publication.
“This has been such a passion for them,” Krutz said. “The money we make from this (book), they want to give back to the community and its people.”
The book goes on sale during this weekend’s Kolach Days, which runs Friday through Sunday. The book will be on display and for sale at the town’s gazebo after Sunday’s parade, with the students autographing copies.
“We ordered 50 books, and I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to sell them,” Krutz said. “I put up a Facebook post (Monday) night and prayed. Kolach Days hasn’t even started, and we’ve sold 35 copies so far. I’m holding back two copies for display, but I think we’ll sell out. At that point, we’ll take pre-paid orders with an additional charge for postage if a book is mailed.”
The book may not make a major best-seller list, but it carries immeasurable value for those who survived and are still dealing with the flooding’s aftermath.
The region had already been hit by a wet fall and snowy winter, leaving the ground saturated. Then came the March 13 bomb cyclone, compounded by the breach of Spencer Dam and flooding on the Niobrara River and Verdigre River. Massive areas sustained damage, and adjacent areas were suddenly cut off from each other.
The idea arose from an April 6 authors’ festival at Wayne State College. The Verdigre students attended the festival, where professional authors give presentations and lead breakout sessions. In addition, young authors can submit and read their stories.
Krutz’s friend, author A.J. McClanahan, was one of the presenters. During the course of the festival, she asked how the March flooding had affected the Verdigre students.
“A.J. said, ‘You need to record their stories, right now!’” Krutz said.
McClanahan’s remark inspired two of the students, who came up with the idea of creating a book of Verdigre residents’ flood stories. Gathered afterwards at a fast food restaurant, the nine students grew passionate about the idea.
“They said, ‘We need to write a book. We need a record, telling what happened (to our community),’” Krutz said. “I wasn’t sure they could pull this off. But the festival was April 6, and the flood was still fresh in their memory.”
Verdigre principal Chuck Kucera encouraged the group to pursue the project. The following Sunday, Krutz met with the students to discuss the idea. The young authors were far ahead of her, already mapping out a plan complete with interview subjects and publishing ideas.
The next day, the students launched into the process of deciding the book’s content and selecting which stories would be included in the book. They started interviewing residents each day after school.
“It grew from that, and word got out that we were doing this. People would approach me and say, ‘I hear you’re writing a book. We want to get in the book,’” Krutz said. “The kids chose who went in the book. I had no influence on them at all. It was all their decisions.”
Unlike many history projects, the youngsters had experienced the flooding firsthand. Kucera had monitored the rising rivers and quickly dismissed school. Portions of the town were evacuated, and the students saw the devastation to their community and surrounding area.
“Most of the kids helped with the clean-up,” Krutz said.
TELLING THEIR STORIES
When it came time to conduct the interviews, Krutz accompanied the students but had no idea what to expect. No pictures were taken of the subjects to help them remain at ease and because of the raw emotions still surrounding the flooding and its aftermath.
The students interviewed their subjects, using an iPad to record the conversations.
One Verdigre business owner talked about seeing her business inundated by 24 inches of water. Another person talked about coordinating a hay drop that drew donations from around the nation so local livestock producers could feed their cattle.
In another instance, a father of a student took his child to an interview of an area farmer devastated by the flooding.
“Our kids went through a lot of details (with their interviewees). It was really emotional,” Krutz said. “I’m sitting here, taking 9- and 10-year-old students to interview these people who had lost everything.”
The students showed compassion and empathy throughout the interviews. At the end, one youngster consoled a distraught resident.
“The girl told that person, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow,’” Krutz said.
In the process, the Verdigre students learned an important life lesson. They observed a resiliency from people who had each other’s backs during the darkest moments.
“Every one of the people that were interviewed said, ‘We’re not alone. We have neighbors who care about us. We have people down the road who care about us,’” the teacher said. “These people (who suffered losses) don’t want a pat on the back. But here, they had young boys and girls who were listening to their stories. And the kids learned so much from it.”
A TEAM EFFORT
The nine Verdigre students gave up their lunch hours to work on the book each day. They transcribed their interviews, originally by hand but later typing them.
The process took the form of a newsroom, with certain students stepping forward in leadership roles and assigning interviews. They maintained a story board along with a map showing the number of states that responded to the Verdigre flooding through the hay lift and other means.
The students solicited photos from residents, and they worked together in laying out pages with stories and photos.
They observed tight deadlines in order to get the book completed by Kolach Days. At one point, they wanted to have lunch with McClanahan in order to share their work with her.
On their own, the students overcame a major obstacle.
Krutz checked with one publishing company but found the cost would be too much for a project that had no money and few, if any, prospects for funding.
“I had a meeting with the kids and said, what are you going to do?” she said.
One idea: find another publisher. Another idea: Approach the Verdigre Eagle weekly newspaper, published by Jason and Lisa Wessendorf.
Krutz allowed the students to do all the talking. Lisa not only agreed to take on the project but to do it for free.
The agreement was for 50 books, to keep the project manageable and not such a financial risk, Krutz said. “I didn’t want to order 150 books and then not sell them,” she said.
The students tackled every aspect of production, with the fourth graders instructing the third graders as needed. “These kids worked with every single word and every single picture. We may have moved things around a little bit, but the kids did all the work and did it their way,” Krutz said.
The students are hoping word of their project goes viral, with one copy of their book going to a special recipient — talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. In turn, they’re hoping to land an appearance on the “Ellen” show.
“I’m so proud of these students. They also learned a lot about each other, and I learned a lot about them,” she said. “You always hear the negative (about kids), but I saw the love and the passion they have for their community.
“They wanted to preserve this part of its history, to leave their own footprint.”
The nine participating Verdigre students are Lillian Swoboda, Emmarie Pavlik, Riley Miller, Landyn Frank, Nora Kucera, Kara Kucera, Sydney Kumm, Kaydence Jones and Beckett Wessendorf.
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