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An Eastern KY high school band shows resilience months after floods

Cheri Lawson
Knott County Central High School band director Katie Stiles leads her students.

In late July last year historic flooding devasted parts of eastern Kentucky including three Knott County Schools. The high school’s band room and most of its instruments were destroyed.

Knott County Central High School's new band director and her students are resilient.

In a small valley, between two mountains in Hindman Kentucky sits Knott County Central High School. Twenty-four-year-old Katie Stiles is the school’s new band director.

There’s a lot of activity in the band room this afternoon.

Stiles is taking her students through a series of warm-ups. Just having a class at all, she said, is incredible since the floods eight months ago destroyed almost everything in her classroom.

“My entire saxophone section was wiped out. We lost all of our marching band equipment, so all of our uniforms and color-guard equipment, keyboards, most of our woodwinds, we lost several clarinets. We had enough for a 50 or 60 -piece band and almost half of it was wiped out,” explained Stiles.

Stiles was hired last summer in late June, as band director. Her parents and sister spent time helping her inventory instruments and organizing the classroom to get ready for the school year. They made the one-hour drive from Pike County to Knott County two days in a row and were planning to go back a third day. But torrential rains washed through the region bringing horrific flooding. High water from the creeks that run in front of and beside the school had flooded large parts of the school and all of the band room. Stiles recalls coming into her classroom days after the flood. She said it smelled like garbage and sour water.

“We came in and everything was covered in mud and wet, from the floor, my tables, chairs, instruments. There was a fine layer of mud everywhere. It was really a sad time," said Stiles.

Cheri Lawson
Knott County Central High School percussion students practice a song.

Thanks to an instrument relief program, Stiles said, several of the school’s instruments were replaced. She also took charge of organizing fundraisers.

Seventeen-year-old Abby Street is gently playing her electric guitar after class. The soft-spoken band member says since the beginning of the year when class started things have changed for the better.

“It’s a big improvement and most of that’s because of Miss Stiles. She has a lot of outreach. I remember at the beginning she was doing all these fundraisers and showing us all the money we were getting for new instruments and it was really inspiring to see her do all that fundraising,” reported Street.

Cheri Lawson
Band students rehearse at Knott County Central High School.

The principal of the school, Bobby Pollard, walked me out to the creek in front of the school he called Troublesome Creek. In his 22 years as principal, he said, he’s never seen the water fill the parking lot as it did in the late July floods.

“We left the debris in the trees just to show people when they came and try to imagine how much water came out of these creeks in these valleys. So, if you can imagine, that’s probably six feet in that tree, that debris there. And from down to this tributary to the Troublesome Creek it was just a lake from here all the way back to the mountainside,” explained Pollard.

He’s emotional when he talks about all of the instrument donations made to the school.

“In everything comes blessings I think and we’ve had so many people who have reached out to us and brought instruments in and gotten our kids back to some normalcy,” said Pollard.

Cheri Lawson
Knott County Central High School principal Bobby Pollard poses for a picture with attendance clerk Crystal Sorrells.

Pollard said Katie Stiles has done an excellent job trying to rebuild the band program.

”We have been without a band and a band director for about three or four years. So, she had a herculean task anyway to come in and rebuild that program,” said Pollard.

Back in the band room sophomore Cody Sparkman is sitting on a stool demonstrating his drum-playing skills. He points out that the drums he’s using belong to a junior- high student. Sparkman said, it’s difficult not to think about the drums that were ruined in the floods.

“Now that they’re basically unusable it breaks my heart every time that I see them,” said Sparkman.

Cheri Lawson
Drummer Cody Sparkman is part of the band at Knott County Central High School.

A closet full of destroyed instruments that have a thin layer of mud left on them and a floor of concrete where carpet used to be are constant reminders of the historic flooding that ravaged eastern Kentucky. But the students in band class at Knott County Central High School are resilient. Alexis Linville, Dristain Slone, and River Martin share their ideas on how the class has managed since the flooding

Band director Katie Stiles said she truly appreciates her students and is inspired by how resilient they are

“When they come in with smiles on their faces at 8:30 in the morning, ready to learn and play their instruments, it makes me excited to be there for them. If we can make it through the flood, they can make it through anything,” said Stiles.

Since the auditorium is still being refurbished, Stiles said there won’t be a spring concert this year. But she’s planning on recording a couple of songs performed by the band members and posting them online.

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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