This summer twenty-one college students and recent high school graduates in West got a summer job helping the town recover. Students worked on construction, cleanup, and organized an expanded library for the elementary school. The summer comes to a close this week for the student workers.
West ISD’s elementary school used to just be for students in pre-school through third grade. But after the intermediate school got destroyed in last year’s fertilizer blast, West Elementary had to take on the fourth and fifth graders as well. Deanna Mayes is the librarian at West Elementary. She says the school had to expand its library to accommodate the older kids…and take in book donations.
"Over 16,000 books to go through and process to add fourth and fifth grade books," Mayes said.
Which would’ve been a lot for one librarian to handle. Fortunately for Ms. Mayes, she had the help of student workers from an Americorps Vista program.
"It was a mess," Mayes said. "I had boxes of books everywhere. The shelves were not in perfect order and I had lots and lots of books to process in. And they came in, they got them all processed in, they cleaned the library, they reordered the library."
The program was organized in part by Baylor University, which got a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Students were recruited from West---they had to either be recent high school grads or currently in college, they got paid for their work and they even receive a small scholarship at the end of the summer.
Over on main street in downtown West Zoe Rankin is painting the front of the old West movie theater. She's a sophomore at Texas A&M in Commerce and she’s one of a small brigade of West-natives who came back home to work a summer job helping the town recover. The theater she’s painting is going to become the theater for the high school and middle school while they rebuild.
Beverly Cox teaches theater at West ISD. "I have no theater at this point," Cox said. "Until we get a new school built. I have nowhere for my students to practice, nowhere for us to even gather to keep props and do buildings. Oh it’s fabulous because now I’ve got a home. You know I was like a ship in no water. So now I have a place to bring my students and we can practice."
The theater had been closed for years but in the weeks after the explosion it became the headquarters for citizens who needed supplies or needed to file an insurance claim. Kevin Devers is a senior at Texas A&M and West-native. He’d never been inside the building until it became the recovery center after the blast.
"It’s a really good experience I like it because I’m also helping out the town I was raised in," Devers said. "Especially after the explosion a year and a half ago it feels good to kinda give back."
As for the rest of West’s recovery—the town just received final approval from FEMA on a 14-month project to rebuild streets and utilities on the north side of town near the blast site. Water well number six is back up and running. Mayor Tommy Muska is happy that college-bound kids from West came back to help out for the summer.
"That tells you the caliber of the young people we have—not only in West but in Central Texas and this group of kids," Muska said.