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'Those Kids Beat Back the River' in Fort Wayne

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Fort Wayne, Ind--"I did it," said Michael Williams, a freshman at Bishop Luers High School, "because I wanted to do something to help out. It needed to be done."

He is one of thousands of school-age youngsters who worked feverishly this month to help this northeastern Indiana community fortify its dikes and fight back the flood waters that spilled through the city, forcing some 9,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The students formed what city officials dubbed "the children's crusade"--an army of young volunteers who filled, hauled, and stacked hundreds of thousands of sandbags. The sandbags are credited with saving the city's saturated dikes. And that spared thousands more families from evacuation.

"If we hadn't had their [the students'] help, I don't think we could have rebuilt the sandbag dikes at Pemberton [a large, aging dike in a northeast neighborhood]," said David J. Kiester, the city's utilities consultant and the coordinator of the throngs of volunteers. "If we had lost that dike, we would have lost that neighborhood."

Mr. Kiester was not alone in extending praise to the students. President Reagan, during a surprise visit to the flooded city, also commended them for their efforts. Scores of others--from Mayor Winfield Moses Jr. to school-board members, from police to ordinary citizens--have been heaping accolades on the community's young people. And the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, one of the city's two dailies, published a front-page editorial calling the students "heroes."

"As we learned during the past week," the editorial concluded, "Fort Wayne's future will be in good hands. We should follow the example of our children more often."

No one knows precisely how many young people joined the sandbag brigade. But Mr. Kiester estimates that about half of the roughly 30,000 volunteers were students.

A few were elementary-school youngsters. "I saw some kids 9 and 10 years old helping," said Mr. Kiester. Middle-school and college students pitched in as well.

But the backbone of the "children's crusade" was high-school students, officials say. "That's where the numbers were," said Mr. Kiester.

The flooding in Fort Wayne--the second worst in the city's history--began on Saturday, March 13. The city's three rivers--the St. Joseph, the St. Marys, and the Maumee--continued to inch their way to near-record highs during the next several days. By Tuesday night, it became apparent to city officials that, if they were to save several neighborhoods from flooding, they would need more volunteers to fill sandbags and to pile them on top of eight miles of dikes.

That night, they contacted school administrators, asking them to excuse high-school students from classes and to permit them to volunteer. Of the city's nine public and parochial secondary schools, all canceled classes Wednesday and Thursday, March 17 and 18, so students could join the flood-control effort. In addition, numerous high schools in areas around Fort Wayne allowed students to volunteer if their parents granted permission. Students--as well as all other volunteers--were also asked to sign release forms by city officials.

Hundreds Volunteered

On Friday, after the crisis involving the critically situated Pemberton Dike had eased, the city's high schools reopened. However, students were still encouraged to volunteer that day--and hundreds did. For instance, at Bishop Luers, one of Fort Wayne's two Catholic high schools, 65 to 70 percent of the students were excused for the day to fight the flood, school officials said.

The volunteer work, students quickly found, wasn't for the lazy or the weak. The sandbags weighed 40 to 50 pounds apiece--enough to cause muscles to ache after a few hours of heaving them onto trucks, unloading them near rivers, and tossing them along the dikes. The work was cold, wet, and dirty, and it wasn't uncommon to see faces, hands, and shoes caked with mud.

Many others from the education community were involved in flood-related work.

Teachers, principals, professors, and administrators took their places along the dikes. City school buses hauled nearly 41,000 volunteers to sandbag sites. And cafeteria workers at Fort Wayne Community Schools donated 3,000 meals and packed 10,000 sandwiches for workers.

And while their numbers were not as great, college students also turned out in droves to help. At Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, a regional campus of about 10,000 students and the largest in the area, students posted signs soon after the flooding began, urging classmates to pitch in. Some professors dismissed classes early in the week so students would have spare time. At mid-week, the campus began flooding, forcing school officials to call off classes for the rest of the week.

Craig Baumgartner, a 21-year-old junior at Indiana-Purdue, said he started filling sandbags at the city's Memorial Coliseum Wednesday afternoon and ended up working on Pemberton Dike until 5 A.M.the next day. He said numerous other Indiana-Purdue students worked alongside him.

Despite the drawbacks, students had few complaints. In fact, they--like many of their adult counterparts--seemed to thrive during the ordeal. Michael Williams reported that he started filling sandbags at 6 P.M. one night and worked continuously until 4 A.M. the next day.

"I didn't mind," he said. "It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of people to talk to and a lot of good times."

Lessons in Citizenship

Though instructional time was lost, school officials say that students did not lose anything in the educational sense. Rather, they said, the student volunteers had a seldom-offered opportunity to discover something essential about citizenship--that receiving community services and rendering them are both part of the bargain.

The students also had a chance to see lo-cal government in action--from watching Mayor Moses greet arrivals at the sandbagging site to listening to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explain strict procedures on fortifying the dike.

"It's not often that Fort Wayne is involved in an emergency like this," said Niles C. Pfafner, dean of students at Carroll High School in the county's northwest corner. Although Carroll did not cancel classes, about 300 of the school's 500 students volunteered--and, hence, missed school--at some point during the week.

"From the comments I've heard, the kids really enjoyed the work," said Mr. Pfafner. "And they just might have learned more by volunteering than in the classroom."

"We're always teaching them to show love and concern for their neighbors," said Guenther K. Herzog, principal at Concordia Lutheran High School, which closed for two days so students could volunteer. "This was a very tangible way in which they could do just that."

On Saturday, March 20, one week after the flood waters began racing through the city, they finally started to recede. Attention then shifted to cleaning up the mud and debris left by the swollen rivers and helping flood victims get emergency aid.

Students soon found their help was still needed--and, as they had the week before, they quickly responded.

Students at North Side High School, which had been evacuated the week before because it was threatened by the flooding, began collecting clothing for needy families. By last week, they had collected four to five tons of clothing and planned to distribute it through the pta's clothing bank.

Student organizations at numerous other schools, even at the elementary level, began soliciting food, blankets, and personal items. And the Bishop Luers school donated $450 that it had earmarked for its Christmas fund drive for low-income families.

Students from neighboring communities also joined the "children's crusade." A busload of high-school students from Berne, Ind., visited Fort Wayne one day to help with cleanup efforts. And social-work students from Indiana State University in Terre Haute arrived to man evacuation centers and to help victims obtain emergency aid. Offers of assistance came from schools as far away as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

As for school buildings, one--Nebraska Elementary--was flooded and suffered damage estimated at more than $200,000. It will remain closed until April 12. But school officials consider themselves lucky: "I feel as if we're getting off very well," said Donald Sell, Fort Wayne Community Schools director of buildings and grounds.

While extremely proud of their students, some officials are challenging them to keep displaying their civic concerns for many more weeks. The cleanup work, they say, is likely to drag on into the spring.

"I think the test will be now," said the Rev. Fred Link, principal at Bishop Luers. "The tv cameras are gone, the work isn't as exciting, and the flood is over. But there's still work to be done. I gave a pitch over the P.A. system today telling students not to let up."

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