Four good friends and peers packed their bags and drove north last May to start Memorial Day weekend.
It was a trip that forever changed their lives and many others, earning them the President’s Award for Outstanding Service by the Texas School Public Relations Association (TSPRA).
The school communication veterans from North Texas, long trained in helping their respective own districts, rallied to the aid of one outside the state.
Julie Zwahr of Little Elm ISD, Angela Shelley of Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, Julie Thannum of Carroll ISD and Tamerah Ringo of Coppell ISD joined forces to help Moore Public Schools following the devastation left by an EF5 tornado. The tornado ripped through the town, killing 24 and left the school district decimated by family tragedies and destruction of school buildings.
Moore PS, which did not have an employee dedicated to school communications, needed help. It needed a plan. It needed support. The North Texas team arrived five days after the tornado hit Moore, which is located 10 miles south of Oklahoma City.
The experience and selfless act of kindness and compassion by these four women helped ease some of the communication stress and workload as they joined forces with members of the Oklahoma School Public Relations Association (OKSPRA) and other members of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).
Zwahr, Shelley, Thannum and Ringo provided their helping hands and years of experience handling tragedies in their districts. Because of this compassion, helpfulness and dedication, TSPRA president Patti Pawlik-Perales honored them with the award at this year’s conference in Austin.
“School communications professionals are wired to respond in times of need – no matter the situation,” Zwahr said. “Traveling to Moore, Okla. and assisting OKSPRA was one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had in my career, and getting to experience it alongside three of my peers made it even more rewarding.”
They assisted OKSPRA and the NSPRA teams at the command center for Moore PS. Zwahr, Shelley, Thannum and Ringo came to the aid of school employees, giving them needed breaks to help deal with their own losses.
Crafting daily messages for the superintendent, prepping her remarks for her speech at graduation, facilitating interviews with reporters, documenting the clean up as the National Guard arrived, monitoring social media during a community –wide prayer service and Presidential visit, holding a daily press briefing to continue the Moore PS story of recovery were all part of their duties during the five days. Dispelling misinformation that comes during a crisis became routine.
“In my mind we were more blessed by the experience and came away with a greater appreciation for the resiliency of public educators and the community of Moore,” Thannum said. “They are true heroes in my book and I’m humbled by the honor of helping them in my own small way. I am especially proud of their Administrative and School Board leadership team for hiring a full-time school communications professional for MPS. I continue to follow news of their recovery as they rebuild and commit themselves to serving the children of Moore. They are an inspiration.”
The TSPRAns worked out of a school library and helped communicate by monitoring social media sites, developing electronic newsletters and press conferences.
“Working alongside fellow TSPRA members in Moore, Oklahoma was life –changing,” Shelley said. “I am humbled to receive the TSPRA President’s award but more importantly, I am honored to serve the public school students across Texas and our nation with my TSPRA colleagues and friends.”
Also, the team took pictures to help document the horrific destruction at Briarwood Elementary and Plaza Towers Elementary. Both schools were beyond repair and were eventually demolished.
The impact of the trip will be memorable for those who offered help in Moore’s time of need.
“The President’s Award was an amazing gesture of affirmation and encouragement for a time that forever changed the lens through which I view my job, myself, my world,” Ringo said.
Pascual Gonzalez, Executive Director of Communications at Northside ISD in San Antonio, presented the award at the luncheon.
“Certainly what these school PR pros did was an act of kindness and courage,” Gonzalez said. “They saw a need. They were compelled to act and they did. They represent the best of TSPRA.”