A year after a St. Louis Park elementary school was broken by the deaths of two fourth-graders, its people came together Thursday, holding hands and circling the school in one large embrace.
Silently, 500 children and teachers watched as four white balloons were released into the sunny blue skies — two representing 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana and 9-year-old Haysem Sani, who were killed in a St. Paul landslide one year ago Thursday. The other two balloons were dedicated to their classmates, Devin Meldahl and Lucas Lee, who were injured.
“We are not just here to mourn but to celebrate the lives of these kids,” said Imam Mohammed Dukuly, who was Fofana’s great-uncle.
For the first time since losing their fourth-grade sons last May, the two families returned to Peter Hobart Elementary School to honor them in what Dukuly said was an emotional visit, but also a reminder of strong community support.
“The families wanted to do something important to wipe away the tears,” he said.
The two boys were killed when a waterlogged cliff fell on them at Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul on May 22, 2013 during a fourth-grade fossil-hunting field trip.
“This is our first step for closure,” said Andraya Thompson, whose 10-year-old daughter, Bella, was in Sani’s class on the field trip. “It’s a very young age to deal with mortality.”
Giving back to others
Earlier this month, the school district announced it had reached a settlement with the families, paying $200,000 to the families of Fofana, Sani and Meldahl. And earlier this year, the city of St. Paul agreed to a record $1 million settlement.
Neither the city nor the school district admitted liability in settling the cases. And two reports commissioned by St. Paul after the accident concluded that the city couldn’t have predicted or prevented the landslide.
Now, some of that money is going to help other children.
Fofana’s family is using much of the money to build a 350-student school in the Republic of Guinea, his father’s native country, where a family member will help break ground next month.
And Sani’s family is using some of the money to build an orphanage in Ethiopia, where his family had lived in a refugee camp before moving to the United States, where Sani was born.
Attorney Paul Godlewski, who represented the families in the case, said they wanted to help other children. Sani had once told his parents that he aspired to attend Harvard University and return to Ethiopia to help kids living in poverty.
Added Dukuly about Fofana’s school: “This is the best way we’ll remember him.”
Coping with the loss
For the families and many of the young classmates, every single one decked out in orange, the school’s color, Thursday brought the beginning of closure.
“It literally feels like a few months ago,” said Thompson, adding that for her daughter, “it’s been an up-and-down response. I personally haven’t been able to close that gap.”
Her daughter and the rest of the 50 now fifth-graders met privately Thursday with Fofana and Sani’s families, praying and remembering the two boys.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Godlewski, who was at the meeting.
She said the families were hesitant to revisit a place so key to the tragedy. But “they found nothing but love and support.”
Then they joined the entire school body in holding hands around the uilding with their classmates, St. Paul and St. Louis Park law enforcement. Even therapy dogs used after the incident were there.
“We join together as students, parents, staff and community in a circle around the school as an outward and visual symbol of the connection we all have to the Peter Hobart community and to each other,” Superintendent Rob Metz said.
But the memory of Fofana and Sani won’t end there.
Fofana’s family is collecting clothes to bring to the African school, while Sani’s family is collecting books for underprivileged students in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis to honor Sani’s love of reading. Donated clothing and books can be dropped off at Peter Hobart Elementary, 6500 W. 26th St., St. Louis Park.
In the school’s atrium, a clay sculpture was also built in the boys’ memory, forever reminding future generations of the two lives lost far too young.