Longtime employee Charles George's trip back to Paducah Middle School Monday represented a return to normalcy after the life altering effects of the Brookport, Ill., tornadoes and the long, difficult recovery.
George, who had worked as a custodian at the middle school for 27 years, spoke to the student body at an assembly Monday morning. He sustained serious head and leg injures during the EF-3 tornadoes that swept through Brookport on Nov. 17. His wife of more than 31 years, Kathy George, was one of the storm's three casualties in Massac County.
He was thrown from the family's trailer and landed in a ditch more than 200-feet away. George said he was lucky to land in water and avoid severe injury to his back. He was flown to a Evansville, Ind., hospital, where he remained until being moved to a local rehabilitation center.
He expressed an overwhelming feeling of support from students, faculty and staff members at the school. George said he was looking forward to seeing familiar faces and thanking them in person for their donations and prayers.
"I just wanted to say thanks to the kids for their support and to the staff for their work in raising money for me," he said. "After losing my wife, they are like family to me."
George said everyone throughout the school district - starting at the top with Superintendent Randy Greene, who visited him many weekends - have gone out of their way to lift and keep his spirits high. He said progress is slow, going from wearing an apparatus to keep his leg bones in place, to the wheelchair he uses now. George hopes to eventually get out of the wheelchair with the use of a walker or crutch.
"I can't put into words how much I appreciate the help, to go from not being able to walk, to a few steps to more than 20 steps," he said. "Knowing people were there for me was all the motivation I needed."
George said his next goal when he comes back is to walk through the doors on his own. Principal Stacey Overlin said that is the goal for his school family too.
"He is a humble, quite person with real grit who has been through some tough things," Overlin said. "Next time he comes here, it won't be in a wheelchair but walking."
Overlin said George's return yielded the quietest assembly ever and he could see the impact on his students' faces. Administrators had planned to have George visit with students and members of staff one-on-one but he requested to speak to the entire group.
"It was great to have him back, we have been waiting for this day for a long time," he said. "Our staff was excited, but our students were especially excited because they have grown so close to him."
Paducah Middle has held several fundraisers, including T-shirt drives, penny wars and chili suppers, to help George with medical and rehabilitation expenses and the replacement of his belongings. The school has raised about $12,400 thus far in donations from members of the school, the local community, and help from Wal-Mart and Paducah Bank, Overlin said.
To donate, visit the Paducah Middle School office on Lone Oak Road during school hours with a check that will be deposited into George's bank account, he said.
Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.