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Small hands, big hearts work to support survivors of tourist bus crash in southern Utah

Students in Jordan School District’s Chinese dual immersion program create cards in Chinese and English to comfort and lift up Chinese tourists injured in a bus crash near Bryce Canyon National Park on Sept. 20. The crash killed four tourists.
Jordan School District

RIVERTON — At Foothill Elementary School, reading, writing and speaking Chinese are second nature to dual language immersion students.

First graders who start the school year knowing no or very little of Chinese languages are able to converse and understand by January. “It’s so amazing to watch them,” said Principal Cherie Wilson.

When Utah’s Chinese dual language immersion community asked for help in supporting the 25 survivors of a recent bus crash outside Bryce Canyon National Park, all Chinese-speaking tourists, Foothill Elementary answered the call.

Foothill teachers and students stepped up by creating hundreds of cards and notes of support written in Chinese by the school’s older students and English and Chinese by the youngest.

“It gave them an opportunity to show empathy for other people,” Wilson said.

The events also presented an opportunity for students to use their Chinese writing skills to make human connections with the crash survivors, more than a dozen of whom remain hospitalized in hospitals in St. George and Provo. Four tourists died from their injuries.

The crash deeply affected Foothill’s dual language immersion teachers, also from China, so the students’ effort to make hundreds of cards was cathartic for them, too, Wilson said.

Chinese dual language immersion classes from Jordan District’s Eastlake, Southland and Monte Vista elementary schools also made cards and wrote notes for the crash survivors, which is just one way Utah’s public education community has reached out in the wake of the fatal crash.

Marybeth Fuller, dual immersion coordinator for Washington County School District, said 40 educators from China teach in the district’s dual language immersion program. As word about the crash spread last week, many of the teachers immediately texted her asking how they could help.

The school district reached out to Dixie Regional Medical Center offering to help.

Since then, the teachers have carried their teaching loads while also volunteering in shifts at the St. George hospital translating for patients injured in the crash, communicating with their family members in China, and “bringing comfort” to crash survivors in multiple ways, Fuller said.

Some have gone so far as to cook Chinese dishes at home so the injured tourists have something familiar and comforting to eat.

“They’ve been there day and night,” Fuller said. “It’s unbelievable. It touches me deeply.”

A handful of Chinese dual language immersion educators from neighboring Iron School District have worked alongside Washington District’s educators, Fuller said.

Washington School District Chinese dual language immersion students visited crash survivors at hospital and hotels, greeting them and singing songs in Chinese. A diplomat with the people’s Republic of China repaid their kindness with a visit to Bloomington Elementary School.

World language students from throughout the district, many of them studying languages other than Chinese, have collected detergent and other household items to enable crash victims who are staying in hotels to launder their clothing.

The school district lent cellphones and laptop computers to patients so they could communicate with friends and family in China.

Wilson said Chinese dual language immersion teachers and others with Chinese language capabilities from Utah County have lent their support to patients and staff at Utah Valley Hospital after crash victims were transported there for care.

Fuller said she is proud of Washington School District and the response statewide from Chinese educators, but she is mindful that the service they are rendering can exact an emotional toll.

One teacher told her, “I’ve never been this close to death,” Fuller said.

Many of them had to deliver “very difficult” messages, Fuller said.

Had the accident occurred eight years ago, there would have been no Chinese dual language immersion programs in place in Washington District schools to help support emergency and health care providers. The “sheer number” of teachers helped the community meet the needs of patients and support the work of other professionals, she said.

“There’s been a lot of tragedy but a lot of miracles and an amazing response. I’m so proud to be part of this community and so proud of my teachers,” Fuller said.