Finding strength amid a small-town tragedy

By Danielle Clark, @ddaniellee11, Contributing Writer

Mass school shootings, bombings in Boston, an economic disaster, and a government shutdown.

You want to talk about bad? It’s bad. And a pessimist would say it’s bad everywhere. But I disagree.

This summer, tragedy struck my small town. A car accident took the lives of three young adults and severely injured two more as they returned home from their volunteer positions as teacher’s aides.

Fewer than 3,000 people call Caledonia-Mumford home. One by one, the people of Cal-Mum fell silent as they heard what happened. People left work. The school cancelled activities. Sidewalks and streets emptied. No one knew how to comprehend what they had just learned.

The next night the church held a vigil for the victims. The townspeople stood shoulder to shoulder on the front lawn. Youth soccer teams came in uniform, straight from their games. The 20-something first responders, close friends of all five, shed tears. Past teachers, principals and coaches were scattered throughout the crowd with their families. The pastor stood on the steps of the church, sharing cheerful memories of Chris and Taylor. They prayed for Emily, Joanne and Michaela, still in critical condition. After learning of Emily’s passing later that week, the same people came together again. Each person held a candle, illuminating the front lawn of the high school. Friends passed a microphone and shared personal stories of Taylor and siblings Chris and Emily.

Though not much could help the families of those who’d passed, people brought dinners to their houses, laid flowers on their porches and made sure their lawns were mowed.

Lawn signs bearing five maroon hearts mute testimony to the loss of the “Cal-Mum 5.”

The phrase spread to surrounding towns. The “Cal-Mum 5” logo replaced profile pictures on social media. Cal-Mum Strong t-shirts replaced shirts and ties. Wristbands with initials of the victims replaced watches.

Second-graders student-taught by Joanne sold lemonade to help pay her hospital bills. They raised $2,700.

Neighboring town Le Roy, held a 5K race, raising more than $16,000 to benefit the victims.  More than 600 runners from both towns participated. The two rivals who, in just a few weeks, would be yelling “destroy Leroy” and “Cal-Mum scum” from across the football field united in their “Cal-Mum Strong” t-shirts. Avon neighbors Cal-Mum as well. Avon’s student council sponsored an event releasing more than 100 paper lanterns into the sky to honor and raise money for the victims. The student body invited Cal-Mum students to their homecoming dance following the event.

Three months have passed, “Cal-Mum Strong” bumper stickers have found a home on nearly every car window.  T-shirts may be stained and over-worn, but they’re now an emblem of the town. The maroon and white lawn signs may be faded, but they’re still standing.

Caledonia-Mumford, a town with no more than a small grocery store and a family-owned pizza shop, embraced its tragedy-struck sons and daughters.  The people of Cal-Mum became a stronger family through disaster. That’s what small towns do–embrace the good.


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