February 5, 2018.
A date imprinted within the minds of the students of Mabel-Canton and those of the surrounding communities forever.
It started off like any other day. The dreaded Monday morning. The early hours signifying the dawn of a new week. But that is where the similarities stopped.
Just before 8:00 in the morning while on the way to school, traveling along their standard route through Hesper, the Arneson bunch, consisting of senior Avery, freshman Jack, eighth grade twin brothers Alex and James, and seventh-grader Aiden, fell victim to the unfavorable road conditions. Hitting a slick and snow covered patch, the 1999 Oldsmobile Alero crossed into the opposing lane, colliding with 15-year-old Gage Dahlberg in his Ford F150 while simultaneously on his way to school in Decorah.
Avery and Aiden died at the scene. As for the girls’ brothers, both Jack and James were taken via EMS Ambulance to Winneshiek Medical Center in Decorah, Iowa, and have since been released, the former having been observed for a liver laceration and concussion while the latter dealing with a broken collarbone and rib. The other, Alex, was airlifted by EMS Air to Gundersen Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis., and, having gone through a number of surgeries concerning a broken femur, fractured pelvis, fractured elbow, and chest tubes, has recently been discharged.
In such a time of tragedy, perhaps the greatest hope can be found in the heartfelt ways in which communities near and far, big and small, have come together as a vast support system. Indeed, all being basketball players themselves, countless schools have set donation boxes, among contributing through countless other consoling gestures including encouraging cards, various food offerings, flowers and gift baskets, and kind words and thoughtful prayers, outside of games for the purpose of raising money for the Arneson family. Area banks have established funds with this same goal in mind, as has a GoFundMe page, with the succeeding now boasting a total exceeding $65,000. A prayer service was also held the following Wednesday at the Mabel Lutheran Church as a supplementary means of solace, the widespread collective comfort evident in the sheer size of the congregation.
In addition, with the girls playing such a profound role in the school itself, as well as the exceedingly difficult nature of such an incident, Mabel-Canton has done its best to provide reassurance. Counseling services within the establishment, psychologists, community mental health workers, and proximal clergy have been increasingly available, as have others made aware of their being there to talk. The school’s walls find themselves plastered with signs encouraging strength and dedicated to the family, the girls’ lockers having been affectionately adorned with pictures, memories, and trinkets. Small fundraisers within the minimal staff and student body, such as a $1 Hat Day, Valentine’s Day cookie sale, and Casual For A Cause, have also been carried out. Perhaps most impressive is the noteworthy so-called “Memory Wall” spanning one of the high school’s gym walls, its expanse nearly covered in content ranging from pictures, quotes, song lyrics, memories, doodles, and everything in between, dedicated to the two Arneson girls.
Recently, on Saturday, February 17, a celebration of life was held in memory of the two young ladies, the sense of community, as well as heartfelt impact of the two girls, again obvious in the vast number of people in attendance. The event featured special music by the M-C Choir and guitarist Bryce Muenchow, shared memories by the girls basketball teams and their respective coaches, and prayers and a service under the direction of Reverend Kurt Bockoven. Parents Earl and RaeAnn also chose to speak, sharing just a few of the occasions demonstrating of the girls’ consistent success in forcing smiles to all whom were in their presence.
When reminiscing about both Avery and Aiden, few can fail to mention each of their bubbly personalities, infectious smiles and giggles, kind demeanors, and undying love for cats. Perhaps one teacher captured it best when describing the elder, who indeed lived by her favorite motto, “Do all things with kindness,” as “always so happy and kind — with just the right amount of sass thrown in, too.” Numerous others have articulated of the essentially miniature form of the older’s particular skill in basketball, consistently “playing as if she were six feet tall.”
When life brings us such profound disaster, perhaps the greatest condolence, proving to be particularly present in communities on the smaller end of the spectrum, is the shared identity of assistance and encouragement from any and all. The phrase “M-C Strong” has been passed around far and wide since the accident. However, more than that, reiterated by RaeAnn herself, we are “Aiden and Avery Strong.”