ROGERS COUNTY, Okla. -- The community of Sequoyah, located north of Claremore, is proving that even the smallest towns can come together and make a big impact in people's lives.
During the past year, dozens of families have received either financial help or other support from a group known as Sequoyah Strong. Grieving neighbors created this community effort after a tragedy involving a student.
Whitney Westmoreland, 18, died in May 2015 when her vehicle crashed into a Sequoyah school bus on her way to school. Westmoreland's mother, Leslie, works at the district as a speech language pathologist, and many of her coworkers rushed to help her and her family following the tragic wreck.
"You take it day by day because it's going to be a lifelong process to heal," Leslie Westmoreland said, "because I don't think you ever really get over it."
After her daughter's death, she said other teachers, parents and even strangers raised money for her family
by buying t-shirts and bracelets proudly proclaiming "Sequoyah Strong."
"This family I have has really helped my family and me," she said, "because it's always good to know someone's still thinking about (Whitney)."
The outpouring of support made a few people wonder if they could help other families going through a tough time. Several teachers spearheaded the effort, including kindergarten teacher Kimberlee Francis, first grade teacher Angie Nadal and lower elementary school principal Lisa Rader.
"We kind of sat down together," Rader said. "We looked at how to take care of the different families and what's right for each of the situations and then using different fundraisers to just help promote it through the lower elementary and the rest of the district."
They also started a Sequoyah Strong Facebook page where they could put out an all-call for help when someone close to the school needed it.
"Once you listen, truly listen," Rader said, "then you realize who's in need."
One family helped by Sequoyah Strong was Stephanie Moreland's. She has three young children enrolled in the district. The group stepped in and offered them money and other support last year after Moreland's husband was killed in a car wreck on Valentine's Day.
"You cannot be thankful enough for everything they have done for me and my kids," Moreland said. "There are just not enough words for it."
Sam Gill and his wife have three children going to Sequoyah schools and another who will be soon. Their youngest child, two-year-old Tressly, received a cancer diagnosis last year. The group collected money for the family and provided them with plenty of meals.
"More than just the money or the help is the army of hundreds of people praying for you," Gill said, "so that makes it really, really nice."
In addition to dealing with their daughter's medical issues, the Gills' five-year-old son Jaxx fell into a fire pit earlier this year and suffered severe burns on his body. Once again, Sequoyah Strong stepped in to help.
"You're already in a situation that's very, very hard," Gill said. "To see a community come in and take care of you and help you despite everything that you see going on in the world nowadays, it makes it a little easier to know that there are good people and there are people willing to help."
Tommy and Billie Steidley have grandchildren doing to Sequoyah schools. They received a gas card last year when the group learned Tommy had to travel to Arkansas for his cancer treatments.
Tommy's wife Billie said getting that gas card brought tears to her eyes.
"I was in awe," she said. "I didn't know what to say. They're a good bunch."
"You find out who your friends are when you get in trouble," Tommy added.
In the past year, Sequoyah Strong collected and distributed more than $5,000 to several families. Organizers said some of the money and support has even come from families previously helped by their group, including the Westmorelands.
"I had a pastor tell me that it was a great tragedy, but great things will become of this," Leslie said about her daughter's death. "It pulled a community together. I think your perspective on life is a lot different. Yes, it was very sad, but we look to the positive for those that are surviving."
The people behind the effort show no sign of stopping now. They have more fundraisers planned, including one on October 11 at the Whataburger in Claremore. People can eat there from 5 to 8 p.m., and 20 percent of the proceeds will go to benefit Sequoyah Strong.
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