Project Turnabout looks back on 20th anniversary of Granite Falls tornado
“Just as an individual’s life experiences forms their personality, the history of an organization plays a huge role in forming the character of its culture,” said Mike Schiks, Project Turnabout Executive Director and CEO Some day, further on down the road, Project Turnabout people will talk about the mettle that was required to get through the pandemic of 2020, and how everyone working together with an unselfish dedication and a clear focus, made it possible. It will, no doubt, be an integral part of the organization’s history. The reality is, though, that Project Turnabout’s history is full of turning points. Its early financial struggles, for example, nearly did the place — but people who believed in the mission worked hard to make sure the doors stayed open. “In my opinion, Project Turnabout was simply meant to be,” Schiks wrote in the 2017 history of the organization, The Miracle of Recovery. “There were people who needed help, and Project Turnabout needed to be there to help them. So we found a way.” Never was “finding a way” more of a challenge, however, than 20 years ago, on July 25, 2000, when an F-4 tornado blasted into Granite Falls from the west and lay waste to the Project Turnabout campus. What wasn’t damaged beyond repair was rendered mostly unusable. The saddest fact was that the most ambitious expansion in Project Turnabout’s history, a $2.2 million undertaking, had been completed less than a year prior to the tornado, on August 29, 1999. On the evening of the tornado, coincidentally, Project Turnabout’s board of directors had been meeting in the new administration building. They had enough warning to be able to take cover in the medical records room, where they saw — and heard — the roof lift up and the ceiling come down on them. Miraculously, none of them or anyone else on campus were seriously injured. The residence buildings on either side of the twister’s path, where 51 patients huddled, had somehow escaped significant damage.
It’s a testament to the immense success of the ensuing rebuilding project that when the tornado is discussed these days, it’s not the destruction that seems to amaze people, it’s how quickly and how well Project Turnabout recovered. All the employees were kept on the payroll and temporary facilities were secured fast enough that programs were back up and running within five days. “The organization, led by a determined board, did not miss a beat,” says Schiks.
How does that happen? “The tornado damaged the buildings, but it could not damage our spirit,” said Sandi Brustuen, the Vanguard Center’s first employee. Rebuilding plans were put into place almost immediately. “Whatever discussion there was about whether to rebuild or not was short,” says Schiks. “Of course they would build again.” Ground was broken on the $5.2 million project on October 23, 2001, and the new facilities were complete on May 5, 2003. “Why do we retell this story?” asks Schiks. “Because it is embedded in the character and values of the organization. It is a story told with the photos in our front lobby. It is told to all new staff. It’s important that they know Project Turnabout rose out of concerned people dedicated to helping others. It was rebuilt out of this same concern and compassion for others. It is the center of all that we do.” The resiliency so apparent during that time is simply part of the organization’s DNA. And that has served Project Turnabout well during these difficult last few months, as everyone has navigated a crisis beyond most imaginations. Finally, though, the experience of the tornado “is not unlike the person afflicted with alcohol, drug or gambling problems,” explains Schiks. “Often they must lose almost everything before they come face to face with who they are. Once they come to that place they can allow others to help them, they can find hope and resolve to build their lives. Their/our mistakes form the foundation.” “I have heard people in recovery from addictive illness say that for all the pain and heartache of their past years of addiction, they came out the better for it,” adds Schiks. “To some extent that is the case with Project Turnabout. We were humbled, we rebuilt with the help of others, and we are grateful.”