The Gatlinburg wildfires impacted Pi Beta Phi Elementary more than any other school. Students were forced to evacuate and stay out of their building for months, 138 students and teachers lost their homes and two of the school's students died in the flames.
Principal Carey Woods decided this year’s tree planting would be dedicated to 12-year-old Chloe and 9-year-old Lily Reed who died alongside their mother in the flames.
As soon as the students heard about the ceremony, they asked to get involved.
“The teachers came to me and said there were students who would like to do a poem. And there are two students who wanted to play a song,” Woods said.
“The sun shines brighter,” one student read from her poem and her classmates repeated in chorus, “Because you were with us.”
Another student played “Amazing Grace” on his saxophone as classmates, teachers and community members wiped tears from their cheeks.
Woods said a student also had the idea to use bubbles as a way to release their thoughts to Chloe and Lily.
“I thought it was the most precious, wonderful idea to give the kids the opportunity to let the kids to send a thought, a prayer or a wish to release to the girls,” Woods said.
Sixth grader Madison Darden said she and her classmates have had a difficult time with their death of their friend Chloe. They talked about grief in their classes and wrote letters to Chloe and Lily’s father, Michael Reed. But, she said, there’s still a warm and friendly presence missing in the sixth grade at their school.
“She [Chloe] was very supportive. You could go to her with anything you needed or she would come to you and just talk to you. She loved hugs. She would come up and give you a big hug,” Darden said.
Michael Reed attended the tree dedication ceremony and spoke with students from each of his girl's classes.
He said he wanted to give them a big group hug because that’s what Chloe would have done.
“They are just forever part of the Pi Beta Phi family. We do have a plaque that will go in front of the tree. The plaque will say, ‘forever in our hearts.’ Mr. Reed designed that,” Woods said.
The magnolia tree is just beginning now, but in a few years, it will have the biggest leaves and flowers of any flowering tree. Even after the students are grown with children of their own, they can visit the tree and be reminded of the two little girls who lost their lives, Woods said.
“You will always have a piece of her,” Darden said.