A free summer session is helping 130 kids affected by the May 22 tornado in Minneapolis.
Five-year-old Tiana Loyd put her hands over her ears last week when severe thunderstorms rumbled outside her Head Start classroom in north Minneapolis. The sounds mirrored the tornado that ripped through the community barely two months earlier.
Loyd, whose home was damaged by the tornado, was comforted by her teachers and reassured that this time, it was not a tornado. She is among 130 children targeted by a special summer program that offers a safe place to play for children of families that were made homeless, were displaced or are waiting for repairs after the tornado.
"They say the No. 1 tragedy is accidents that occur after a tornado," said Rico Alexander, director of Head Start and Early Head Start with Parents in Community Action (PICA). "With all of the debris, we wanted to get children off the streets while repairs are being done."
The free program, run by PICA, received more than $276,000 from the Minnesota Department of Education, the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Head Start in Washington, D.C., and Resources for Child Caring, a local child care education agency.
To get the word out, program officials began calling and knocking on doors of North Side residents in late June. Almost immediately they filled up five classes of 3- to 5-year-olds, one class of 5- to 8-year-olds and one class with 10 infants and toddlers. They admitted 130 children and have a waiting list for this summer.
Minneapolis public schools estimated in June that there were 290 newly homeless children due to the tornado. Head Start officers said they wished they had more funding to accommodate all kids affected by the tornado.
The program is run from PICA's Donald M. Fraser Early Childhood Family Development Center on Humboldt Avenue N. About 18 staff members were called back from a summer layoff to help care for and teach the children.
Selena Davis, the summer program's coordinator, said children are bused to and from the center and are fed breakfast, lunch and a snack. They take field trips to city museums and parks nearly every day.
She recounted a recent incident in which a child she did not know well, who looked tired from the day's activities, came up to her and gave her a hug. This prompted dozens of children to start hugging her.
"It's a social and emotional curriculum. They learn how to be friends, follow rules and they just [experienced] a tornado," said Davis. "We're worried about kids' emotional state as well, and we're trying to relieve some stress."
Quiana Beal, an assistant teacher at Head Start and Tiana's mother, said her daughter "was shaken up and she gets nervous when she thinks she hears a tornado."
On Monday morning, students in Classroom 110 wore colorful shirts that read "I'm an Incredible North Side Kid." That's in keeping with the name and theme of the program, "PICA's Incredible Summer." After students completed a vision and hearing screening in the morning, they played with jigsaw puzzles, danced to a Spanish rhyme about numbers and chocolate, listened as their teacher, Josefina Mendoza, read a book about table manners and took turns chasing bubbles on the playground.
The program runs until Aug. 18. Other kids echoed Tiana's sentiment when she said she wishes it would last a little longer.
"We got it up and running really fast," said Alyce Dillon, PICA's executive director and a former north Minneapolis resident. "We were very pleased and impressed with the response to the tornado."
Tasnim Shamma • 612-673-7603 Twitter: @TasnimS