GARLAND COUNTY, Ark. — It only takes 40 minutes to drive from Mountain Pine to Jessieville and Fountain Lake schools, but this week they feel much closer. All week three school districts in Garland County have been united in tragedy.
Fatal car crashes, hospitalization, and deadly illness have taken people out of their schools, and instead of healing in isolation, they are doing it together.
Fountain Lake lost a teacher to illness, Jessieville has students in critical condition, and Mountain Pine first-grader Bridgette Shaffer along with her mom and her mom’s best friend was killed in a car crash.
“As a result, we saw the true definition of community really is,” stated Lisa Engebretson, Mountain Pine Elementary Principal
Each day this week, Mountain Pine, Jessieville, and Fountain Lake School Districts have been wearing a different color shirt to show they care. On Monday they wore blue for four Jessieville athletes. Tuesday, they wore red or black in memory of Bridgette Shaffer. Wednesday they wore purple or gold for beloved Fountain Lake teacher Ginger Henson.
Engebretson is Bridgette’s principal and says she never knew a stranger, adding, “Anytime you met her, she had a huge smile across her face, and it was contagious, and that’s one of the things we talked about in here.”
Many of the things Bridgette wanted to do she didn’t get to do. She hoped to one day get to the end of the playground monkey bars, but she never did.
A monkey bar challenge was one of many events her school held to celebrate her memory Monday. Two days after the crash and one day after what would have been her birthday.
Following the birthday was a balloon release. Parents were allowed to attend, and counselors as well as pastors were present if needed. Engebretson explained the school tried to “what would help them to grieve and to grow.”
She added, “There’s no manual, so you just had to follow our heart .”
Bridgette’s mother, Rebecca Shaffer and their church friend, Linda Godwin who also passed in the crash were both wives of Piney Firefighters.
Piney Fire Chief Scott Miser said their husbands, Mike Shaffer and Mark Godwin, are some of his best men.
“This is our family. We do thanksgiving up here. We do Christmas up here,” Miser stated. “Bridgette was my son’s best friend. I mean I can picture them jumping on the trampoline in my house right now. We were together even when we were not doing fire department-related stuff.”
To help with funeral expenses, the Piney Fire department is asking for donations on their behalf.
“There’s nothing anyone can say or do to make it go away, but everything that could happen to make it easier for them has happened,” Miser said. “I go through GoFundMe and look at names. Some of them I know. Some I don’t, but I want to know them all because it takes a special kind of person to ease someone’s suffering.”
With everyone doing their part, even Bridgette’s father, Mike, has continued serving his community following his wife and daughter’s deaths. He said he wasn’t ready for an interview, but he was confident giving back to the community through the fire department at this time is what his late wife would have wanted.
According to Miser, “There’s no doubt in my mind they are in a better place. We’ve just got to run our race and go up there and join them.”
Mountain Pine Elementary Principal Lisa Engebretson said Bridgette’s name will not be taken down anywhere in her first-grade classroom until her classmates say they are ready. Wednesday, when asked by their teacher if they were ready, the children said they were not, so Bridgette’s name is still on her desk, the calendar, and called during roll call.
There are fundraisers set up to help the family of Bridgette and Rebecca Shaffer and for the family of Linda Godwin. Donations can also be sent to the Piney Fire Department at 120 Mid-America Blvd. Hot Springs, AR.