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Step Up honors memory of family with The Baker Perseverance Award

By ROGER MOONEY

NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Baker family name was synonymous with Temple Christian School for nearly two decades, and it was a name that automatically spread warmth.

Dawn Baker was the principal at the private school and played the piano at church. Her husband, Chet, taught third through sixth grade and was the choir’s song director. Their son, Jamison was in VPK.

Chet, Jamison and Dawn Baker take in Times Square during a trip to New York City.

They were a beautiful family who led with their faith.

“Their spiritual walk, it goes with the talk,” said Wanda Chirila, who has taught at Temple Christian for 29 years and called Dawn her closest friend.

Dawn and Chet worked at Temple Christian for 18 years. To many, they were Temple Christian.

“This was their home away from home,” said John Edwards, the pastor of the adjourning Temple Baptist Church.

On the night of Oct. 18, 2018, the tightknit school and church community came to a tearful standstill as word spread that the Bakers were involved in a horrific two-car accident.

Chet, 51, died at the scene. Jamison, 4, died later that night at a Lee County hospital. Dawn, 47, passed the next day.

“Everyone is still grieving,” said Krystal Bruce, the school’s office manager.

To honor the memory and the spirit of the Bakers, Step Up For Students will present The Baker Perseverance Award this month at several Rising Star events around the state, honoring Step Up scholars, their family members and educators who have gone above and beyond. This new award goes to school leaders who emulate the Baker’s spirit of perseverance and dedication. The awards begin Tuesday night.

“I am very happy for it,” Krystal said. “It’s really great how (people) don’t want to just forget. They led lives like we should all strive to live. They were willing and able to give at any moment for anything, and they were huge supporters in the school and the church, and if I could be half of that, I would be so blessed.”

Tears rolled down Krystal’s cheeks as she spoke. Krystal cried often on a recent morning as she talked for half an hour about the Bakers.

Their legacy?

“Love,” Krystal said. “They had such a love for their students, and they genuinely cared about everyone. They took the time. They’d go visit the kids at their houses. They’d get to know the parents.”

Tougher than Hurricane Irma

Why is Step Up honoring the Bakers with what will be a yearly award?

Easy.

“Our staff has worked with the Bakers for several years,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, Office of Student Learning. “The couple was always the most positive, ‘can do,’ child focused administrators we had the pleasure of working with. They always wanted to do what was needed for their students.

Kathleen Hardcastle (right), headmaster at Trinity Christian Academy in Miami, received The Baker Perserverance Award for her dedication to the school despite caring for her husband while he lost his battle to cancer. (Roger Mooney photo)

“My team came up with the award as a way to memorialize the Bakers and what they stood for. We have many leaders and teachers that are very much like the Bakers in many of our schools across the state, and we want to honor them with this award.”

That the school and church still stand is a credit to the Bakers.

Dawn spearheaded the reconstruction of the building in the fall and winter of 2017 after Hurricane Irma did her best to smash it, raising funds to repair the $240,000 in damages caused by the storm. Chet grabbed his tools and repaired what he could.

It was Dawn who rallied the school community, telling parents, “This is the plan. This is what we’re going to do. Don’t worry, it’s going to work.”

“And she made it work,” Krystal said. “It was wild and crazy, but if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think the school would have held together.”

Dawn begin her nearly 20-year career at Temple Christian as a teacher. She eventually became the assistant principal and then principal. The Bakers’ older children, Kara and Chet Jr. both graduated from the school. Kara works as a missionary in France. Chet Jr. is in the U.S Air Force.

The Dash

Hundreds turned out the night after the accident for a candlelight vigil. The tiny flames illuminated the darkness at the small school and church located on a remote stretch of State Road 31, out near a C & C Feed Store and a Shell gas station.

“It was amazing,” Krystal said. “There was just so many people coming, offering condolences. They were giving testimonies. We had people who graduated here 10 years ago talking about how they touched their lives, set them on a certain track and just how they cared for them, so that was really special.”

In her 1996 poem, “The Dash,” Linda Ellis talked about life.

It begins:

“I read of a man who stood to speak

At the funeral of a friend.

He referred to the dates on her tombstone

From the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth

And spoke of the following date with tears,

But he said what mattered most of all

Was the dash between those years”

“They did a lot with that dash,” Edwards said. “It was a nice dash. It was God honoring.”

Dawn hummed or whistled Christian songs and Disney tunes as she walked the halls of the school. She was full of compassion and yet could be stern. She once expelled one of Chirila’s foster children.

Chet could be found on weekends pulling weeds around the school or the church. He was handy with tools, could fix anything. And if you were moving on the weekend and needed an extra hand, Chet was available. Always.

Jamison was all boy, said those who knew him. He was full of laughter and so much life.

In an instance, they were gone. What remains?

“The impact they had on many lives in this community,” Edwards said. “A profound impact.”

Life does go on, though. Teachers adjusted their schedule to cover Chet’s classes. And there is a new principal, Brittany Lohmeier, who possesses many of the same traits as Dawn.

Lohmeier visited the area over Christmas, saw Temple Christian’s ad for a new principal and applied. Chirila doesn’t believe that is a coincidence.

“She just fits right in,” Chirila said.

The Speech

The Bakers’ deaths are looked upon as a divine appointment in the Baptist community. Edwards recalled the speech Dawn made the day before the accident during a staff meeting.

“She said, ‘Let’s stop dinking around with Christianity,’ and then she made a confession and prayer to the Lord. She said, ‘Lord, whatever it takes to use me for your glory and honor, to further the Kingdom, I’m in,’ and that next day she died. That was a real shaking moment to reflect upon,” Edwards said. “People think, ‘Man, was that her farewell speech.’”

Edwards noted a number of people who attend Temple Baptist recommitted to their faith after the Baker’s accident.

Sitting in the school’s library, Chirila recalled Dawn’s speech.

“It hit my heart,” she said.

Chirila and her husband have seven foster children at home, ages 4 to 14.

“It’s chaos,” Chirila said. “Dawn always said, ‘I’ll take one. I’ll take them all. I will help you. I will go through that ringer with you.’ She truly meant it. You know how people say, ‘If you need me call me,’ and they’re nowhere to be found? She was always to be found.”

Reminders of the Bakers dot the school and church. Notes written to the Bakers by the student after the accident still hang from the walls of classrooms. Chet’s tools still sit where he left them.

The church sanctuary was recently renamed The Baker Auditorium.

And then there is the school and church building. It remains standing because of the dedication and perseverance, the love and faith of the Bakers.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

A post-hurricane story: ‘Right now, we just survive’

By GEOFF FOX

Dawn Baker, principal of Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, Florida, struggled to remain stoic as she gave a tour of her school, which was badly damaged when Hurricane Irma ripped through the area in September.

Temple Christian School Principal Dawn Baker surveys damage from Hurricane Irma in what was once a classroom. She said it is unclear when renovations may be complete. Insurance will not cover all of it and the school must pay for $35,000 deductible.

She had already shown us what was once the library, where there were no shelves or books, just an exposed concrete floor and lots of missing drywall.

The scene, three months after Category 2 winds plowed through the area, was similar in all six classrooms, some of which were used to store the facility’s damaged toilets, sinks and other plumbing items. In some rooms at the private, pre-K-3 through 12 school, smoke alarms hung by wires from ceilings.

At least some drywall in every room was removed with up to five feet of it gone in some areas.

A musty smell permeated the premises.

Because of damage, the school’s front office was moved to a hallway and the staff nursery was moved into a pastor’s office; the school is part of Temple Baptist Church.

Third through 12th graders were being taught at six large tables in the cafeteria.

Outside, two portable toilets used by older students stood near the front entrance, a fence was damaged and a scoreboard across the athletic field lay twisted and crumpled.

“We never dreamed there would be this much damage,” said Baker, who is in her second year as the school’s principal. “We figured we’d be back in business after a few days. We weren’t prepared for the ramifications. It’s been very stressful for everybody.”

Dawn Baker, principal at Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, helps a student with a math problem. The class was meeting in the school’s cafeteria because of serious damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

Damages to the building were estimated at around $240,000; the school’s deductible is $35,000, and Dawn Baker said she doesn’t know how the school will raise that amount.

Unfortunately, she said, a former church official had removed contents from its insurance policy just before the hurricane hit.

School officials have been working with an insurance company, but it is still not clear how much money the school will have to raise or when the work might be completed.

Of the 105 students at Temple Christian, 51 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families; the program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Despite the number of lower-income families at the school, Baker said some of them have contributed money to the rebuilding efforts.

She paused as she relayed that information and her eyes welled with tears.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” she said. ““Right now, we just survive and keep going and keep the students’ needs met.”

The church was built in 1975 and repair work must adhere to stricter, costlier codes.

But the school’s most urgent needs relate to student seating. Thanks to Irma, the school lost all of its cubicle-like work stations where students could work individually and with less disruption.

Baker has found sources that can provide three-paneled desks for $300 each or computer carrels for $100 apiece, but money would remain an issue. Fifty desks at $300 is $15,000, while the carrels would cost $5,000.

Teacher Chet Baker, Dawn Baker’s husband, said he knew there would be big problems when they visited the school after the storm passed.

“The water was up in the back of the building, just gushing through the doors and going everywhere,” he said.

After Irma, school was out for two weeks.

As the Bakers worried about when the school will be renovated and how it will be paid for, teachers and students went about the business of learning.

In a first- and second-grade classroom, teacher Evelyn Kennedy was in the midst of a reading lesson. She pointed to the word knot.

“Do you hear the K? What do we hear instead?” Kennedy asked.

“The N,” several students said in unison.

She then went over the “onk” sound in the word honk, the “unk” in trunk and the Y sound in baby.

When Dawn Baker opened a door to the cafeteria, the din of dozens of third through 12th graders spilled into the hallway.

“This is the struggle, but what do you expect?” she said. “I’m surprised at how much progress I’m still seeing. It’s miraculous to me, because it gets pretty noisy. If I can’t concentrate in here sometimes, how can the kids?”

Amid the noise, high school teacher Jason Yeargin was teaching pre-geometry to eight-graders and Algebra I and II to high school students. Yeargin said his students have adapted well under the unforeseen circumstances.

“We do physical science in the hallway, but there are always a whole bunch of interruptions,” he said. “Students go outside for free time, and you can’t get outside without going through the hallway.”

Despite its challenges, the school is still participating in an annual Toys for Tots Christmas toy drive and working on a small Christmas production to be performed near the holiday. The program will include five carols, ending with “Silent Night.”

Baker was determined to forge on.

There wasn’t much choice.

“We’re trying to keep it simple,” she said, “but even now I’m feeling super overwhelmed.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at GFox@sufs.org.