For Amish, New Hope is reality

Six months after 5 girls were killed in Pa. school, community moves on, class starts in new building

April 03, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

NICKEL MINES, Pa. -- As a morning mist burned off the surrounding pastures, four children hurried up the long driveway carrying lunch pails. The smallest boy skipped.

They were headed to a place where they had not been since a gunman changed their lives in October: a real schoolroom.

Yesterday, Amish children who survived the attack that killed five of their classmates began classes in a new schoolhouse, named New Hope Amish School.

"I think the day is sort of a bittersweet day for the community," said Herman Bontrager, a member of a liberal Amish sect and a spokesman for the organization that collects and disburses funds for the victims. "There's the excitement and enthusiasm about having a new school facility for their children, but it's also a stark reminder of what they lost."

Exactly six months before, early on the morning of Oct. 2, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a local milk-truck driver, rushed into the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School. He ordered the adults and boys out and subsequently opened fire on the girls before taking his own life. Five girls died and five were seriously injured.

Fathers of the victims and other community members razed the old school a week after the attack and began construction on the new one, just a few hundred yards away, in January.

Yesterday morning, horse-drawn buggies and vans carrying students and parents pulled up the school's driveway, passing several police vehicles that guarded the school.

Two boys with thick blond hair cut straight across their foreheads chatted with police officers. Leaning on scooters, the boys gawked at the throng of cameramen, reporters and photographers who gathered in a parking lot some distance away from the school.

Other boys threw off their jackets as they ran into the schoolyard. They leapt into the air tossing basketballs and hanging onto a basketball hoop.

The small school, which is covered by rose-colored brick and yellow siding, is more secure than most Amish schools, Bontrager said. Encircled by a fence, it is set back from the road and surrounded by homes.

"No trespassing" signs mark all approaches to the school. The Amish community has issued a public statement asking members of the media not to approach them.

Learning resumes

Teacher Emma Mae Zook, 20, will preside over the classroom, just as she did in the old schoolhouse. About a week after the shooting, she began teaching students who were not wounded - 15 boys and one girl who ran out with her brother - in a nearby garage.

Three of the injured girls returned to school in the fall, although some have had to miss class time due to rehabilitation or surgeries. A fourth girl, Sarah Ann Stoltzfus returned to school just before Christmas. Despite a serious head wound, she is doing well in school, Bontrager said.

The youngest victim, Rosanna King, 6, remains in a semicomatose state although she appears to be improving, he said.

"She has shown some signs of physical improvement, enough so that they have decided to pursue some more aggressive physical therapy," he said, adding, "The prognosis still looks like major, long-term disability."

She currently breathes without a respirator; although, she is dependent on a feeding tube, Bontrager said. That the young girl lives is remarkable, since her injuries were so severe, he says.

It is uncertain why Roberts opened fire on the girls. He arrived with objects that suggest he was preparing to barricade himself inside the school and sexually assault the girls. In final messages to his wife, he indicated that he felt guilt over molesting young relatives decades ago, although the relatives did not substantiate those claims.

The Amish publicly expressed forgiveness of Roberts, who was not Amish, and reached out to his widow and children after the shooting.

Members of the community have drawn on the support of one another, Bontrager says. Many of the victims, their families and classmates have sought counseling, as have rescue workers who responded to the shooting.

Forgiving, moving on

Teacher Emma Mae Zook's sister-in-law, who was at the school on that October morning, gave birth last fall and named her baby after one of the victims, 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersole, Bontrager says.

His organization, the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, has collected more than $4 million in donations for those affected by the shooting. The money is being used to cover medical bills and counseling. Trusts for the long-term care of the injured girls will be set up, Bontrager said.

Despite the large quantity of money that has been donated, the new school was built to the same modest standards of all Amish schools. There is no electricity, and toilets are located in separate outhouses. A simple jungle gym, at least one picnic table and a baseball backstop sit in the schoolyard.

At 8:30 yesterday morning, the school bell rang, and the boys left their game and ran inside accompanied by several parents.

Bontrager thought that the day would begin with Bible readings and prayer. "I'm sure it was all very focused on thanksgiving for those who are there and for their lives and the buildings," he said.

The Amish community is grateful for the outpouring of support from the outside world, but wants to heal in private, he said.

He added that the Amish are surprised that so many outsiders have remarked on their ability to forgive. "The Amish reaction is ... that's what you have to do if you try to follow Jesus, and you don't just do it once. Sometimes you do it 70 times seven times."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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