UM Education Graduate Student Helps Rebuild Smithville School Library One Book at a Time

Application completed for class project lands $15,000 grant

Kerry Baker, librarian at Smithville High School, and school principal Chad "Coach" O'Brian show off the oversize check from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. UM photo by Jerra Scott.

OXFORD, Miss. – After an EF-5 tornado demolished the town of Smithville in April 2011, many citizens did not know where to begin to rebuild what was left of the lives they once knew.

For Kerry Baker, librarian at Smithville High School and an online graduate student at the University of Mississippi, one step toward recovery was landing a Beyond Words: Dollar General School Library Relief Fund grant worth $15,000 for the school where she has taught for 24 years.

“I was able to pursue the grant as part of my literacy classes,” explained Baker, who is earning a master’s degree in literacy education from UM. “The tornado wiped out the school. Right now, we’re on a temporary campus until August of 2013.”

The relief fund was created by Dollar General to help libraries recovering from major disasters. This grant will help provide replacement items, including books, media and equipment, that were destroyed by the violent storm that left the school unusable. In the library, the tornado did significant damage, shifting the roof and destroying literacy materials, including more than 800 books.The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported that the EF-5 tornado, the first in Mississippi since 1966, produced winds upward of 205 mph and killed more than 35 people before moving on to Alabama.

“It was pretty widespread destruction, nothing like I’d ever seen,” Baker said. “It was like somewhere else. You didn’t know where you were because things were gone.”

For Smithville principal Chad “Coach” O’Brian, the tornado occurred at the end of his second year of employment. He had dismissed school early that day and was watching “SportsCenter” instead of the weather.

“I really didn’t want to get in the closet,” O’Brian explained. “I used to not be one of those people who worries about the weather. But that’s not bravery, it’s ignorance … after you’ve been through what we’ve been through, things change. We weren’t lucky, we were blessed.”

After the storm, O’Brian received an email from Superintendent Scott Cantrell describing the grant and suggesting that Baker apply for it. The principal passed on the information and forgot about it, thinking they would not be chosen. Weeks later he received an email from Kerry Baker confirming that Smithville had been selected for the $15,000.

“Our superintendent made a literacy initiative and this grant goes a long way toward helping us meet our literacy goals,” O’Brian said. “We’re ecstatic to have the $15,000. We have a chance for our library to be state-of-the-art, and there’s nothing that our kids will lack for.”

At Ole Miss, Baker is studying under Thea Williams-Black, associate professor of teacher education, and wrote the successful grant as a class project. The students were not required to submit the grants, but Baker decided to send hers on to Dollar General in hopes of acquiring materials to help her students.

“Kerry is an outstanding literacy education student,” Williams-Black said. “She works well with her peers and is a leader in her school district.”

Over the past year, Smithville has worked with FEMA and volunteers to rebuild. Residents have made a long-term recovery plan based on interviews and town meetings, and complete with milestones to conquer.

In the long-term education plan for Smithville High School, there was a need to “increase accessible technology and enrichment for all grade levels.” The Beyond Words grant, combined with Baker’s literacy efforts, will help the town rebuild both as a town and as a community.

“We need more information on literacy,” Baker said. “It’s something that is a part of everyday life. If I can learn a little bit more about how to diagnose some of these problems early on, then maybe I can help the kids out to where they need to be and prevent some problems later on. It’s been said that you spend kindergarten through third grade teaching the kids how to read, then you begin to teach them.”

For more information on the Long-Term Community Recovery Plan for Smithville, go to For more information about The Online Literacy Education Program, go to