They were stuck and someone had to go get them.
Four Dalton Public Schools students who are deaf — Raymond Bravo, Diego Olvera, Raul Real and Jenelle Serrano — attend special education classes contracted through Gordon County Schools. Most school days, they make the trip to and from Calhoun without any issues. But on Tuesday, Jan. 21, as a winter storm started, the students were stuck miles from home.
“When I talked to Gordon County, they were, like a lot of people, not prepared for the storm,” BeLinda Parrish, director of transportation for the Dalton schools, said. “They weren’t going to close schools until 1 p.m. and they had advised the driver about our situation. The special ed driver was going to leave at noon, but he was coming from the other side of Rome where he got stuck in traffic for hours.”
So Parrish took it upon herself to go get the kids in her truck, hoping its four-wheel drive would keep her on the road.
“I headed down there around 2 p.m., down Highway 41 from the North Bypass,” she said. “I figured it would be easier. If I got on the interstate, I thought I’d get stuck.”
But U.S. Highway 41 was in poor condition, Parrish said.
“I didn’t get as far as McFarland Hill before I saw trucks fishtailing, cars going over the ditches,” she said. “I made it through though. After the hill, it was pretty clear. But when I got to Ashworth Middle School (a few miles north of downtown Calhoun) things were deadlocked.”
The roads had become treacherously icy, Parrish said. Coordinating with Gordon schools staff, she stayed at Ashworth Middle waiting on the special ed driver who, after getting close enough to town, had been sent to get students from another school. Parrish arrived at the middle school around 2:30 p.m., she said, but the driver didn’t arrive with the students until 6:50 p.m.
“Oh, they were so glad to see me,” she said of the Dalton students. “They just gave me a big hug.”
The celebration was short lived, however. Parrish still had to drive back to Dalton in the dark.
“It was really icy,” she said. “This is my 30th year (as transportation director) and I’ve never seen this before. It was so slushy. Everything was starting to freeze up. But the kids? Kids don’t worry. They were laughing, they were fine. They weren’t worried at all. It put such a smile on my face. I was terrified, but I didn’t want them to know that because they trusted that I would get them home.”
Back in Dalton, the students’ parents were getting scared their children might not make it home that night.
“It was misery knowing those parents were worried,” Parrish said. “We couldn’t get home sooner. It could not be helped. That was so hard, knowing you can’t fix it easily. There was just so much traffic. People trying to get kids, people trying to get home, half a lane of road open and so much ice.”
Parrish said she got back to Dalton and pulled into the first home around 9 p.m.
“It was so comforting to let that first child out and to see their dad come out with a smile on his face,” she said. “I wouldn’t blame the parents for being angry, that they’d think, ‘Why didn’t you get my child home sooner?’ But each one, they were just so thankful.”
Parrish said each child getting home safely was a direct result of leadership from Claude Craig, director of Whitfield County Emergency Management.
“He made sure we all knew who to contact, he kept in contact when we were closing schools, told us which roads were open,” she said. “It was so great we had him. I think anything could have happened if we did not have Emergency Management.”
Craig said he was just doing his job.
“It’s a collaborative effort that we have with the school systems,” he said. “It’s a team effort and nobody can get it done by themselves.”
Parrish said her harrowing experience during the winter storm has not sparked a sense of adventure.
“It’s something I never want to do again,” she said. “Let’s never play out that scenario again.”
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