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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 14, 2010
Rising from the ashes
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The hard-earned medals, the plaques and trophies, proudly displayed in the Skippers’ living room, went up in flames on Jan. 6, the night their house caught on fire.
Ernestine Skipper, a junior at Guilderland High School, had won them.
“She had a whole wall of them in our living room,” said her mother, Linda Skipper. “She has been on the team since seventh grade. Last year, she won a really big trophy from the Suburban Council.”
Ernestine had been slated to run in the prestigious Dartmouth Relays two days after her home burned.
In the wake of the fire, she thought she should set aside her goal to run in the relays.
“At first, I thought that maybe I should stay here with my family,” she said. “But then my dad talked to me. My dad loves me running and comes to all my meets.”
“My husband has been in two motorcycle accidents,” said Mrs. Skipper. “He’s a heart patient, and he’s on dialysis.” That doesn’t stop Ernest Skipper, though, from supporting his children. “He’s at every track meet,” said Mrs. Skipper.
Her family sticks together, Mrs. Skipper said. Ernestine has older and younger brothers. Her younger brother, Clarence, is a student at Farnsworth Middle School.
“When I was going to Dana-Farber,” Mrs. Skipper said of the cancer hospital in Boston, “we would go as a family.” Mrs. Skipper has a genetic disorder, and has to be screened regularly for tumors that need to be removed right away.
“Ernie helps me,” she said.
Ernestine recalled what her father told her after the fire. “He said, ‘Ernie, even though our house burned down, you shouldn’t pass this up.’ I decided to go, even though I didn’t have anything,” she said.
“Everything I needed”
That soon changed.
Friends and teachers of Ernestine along with the track booster club rushed to help her. She is a student in the Focus group at Guilderland High, which is overseen by Assistant Principal Lisa Patierne.
Patierne describes the Focus group as “a school within a school…a very tight-knit group.”
“Our PTA, within 40 minutes of getting my phone call had a check,” said Patierne. “Students are pulling out their wallets. Faculty, staff, the booster club, everybody wants to help…
“It’s amazing how the whole community came together,” Patierne went on. “Even in tough financial times, the outpouring has been inspiring.”
She also said of Ernestine, “She is a very strong young lady. She has taken this in stride.”
“My teachers took me to Dick’s to get new training sneakers and shorts,” said Ernestine. Then her coach, David Kosier, called Fleet Feet Sports, thinking he might get a discount on spikes.
The owner, Charles Woodruff, instead saw that Ernestine was completely outfitted, free of charge. A Guilderland graduate who works at Fleet Feet, Justin Wager, waited on Ernestine. Holly Coy, an officer in the booster club, wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, saying how touched she was by the “generosity, sensitivity, and care.”
Kosier offered more support than a link for equipment. His own house had burned two years ago, so he had an idea of what Ernestine was going through. He hugged her and told her, “I’m proof you can get through this.”
As he worked with the booster club and Focus teachers to get Ernestine set up for the meet, Kosier thought she was “a little bit shy” about taking help.
“You’re taught since you’re a little kid not to ask for things for yourself,” said Kosier. “She wasn’t asking for a handout. I told her that giving makes people feel better.”
Kelly Brown and other Focus teachers got what Ernestine would need for an overnight trip, from pajamas to Q-tips.
“I had everything I needed,” said Ernestine. “It was awesome.”
On her four-hour ride to Dartmouth, with her coach and teammates, Ernestine said, “I was thinking about a lot of things.” She had rushed home the evening of the fire when her mother called but, arriving at the scene, she couldn’t find her family. The Skippers had all gotten out safely, even their dog, Neddick.
“My dad had passed out from too much smoke and hit his head on the ice,” Ernestine recalled. He was taken to the hospital.
She remembered how she felt the night of the fire: “I was just looking at my house. It was unbelievable…I was thinking, ‘Where’s my mom?’…My brother Joey came, and said, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I ran frantically around the neighborhood, trying to find my mom.”
An officer took her to her mother, she said. Later that night, the Skipper family members split up, staying with different friends and relatives.
On the ride to Dartmouth, Ernestine recalled, “My dad would say, ‘Focus…You can do this. You’re a monster.’”
Her mother kept in touch with her on the trip by cell phone.
Ernestine describes herself as “very competitive” and said, “I always raced people when I was little. I love sports.”
As a fifth-grader, she ran in the Friendship Meet at the high school and was spotted by Peter Wachtel.
“Coach Wachtel saw me run and said, ‘You’re really good.’ He talked to me and my dad about taking a test in seventh grade to run on the high school team. I passed the test,” she said.
“Against the best”
Ernestine faced a tough schedule in the Dartmouth Relays.
“It’s a chance to run against the best,” said Coach Kosier.
On Friday, Ernestine ran the first leg of the sprint medley relay for Guilderland. She completed the 200-meter run in 27.3 seconds, and handed the baton off in first place. The team had been seeded 18th and ended up in 10th place.
On Saturday, Ernestine ran both the 55-meter race and the 55-meter race with hurdles.
“Usually, you pick one or the other,” said Kosier. But she’s so good in both of them, he said, that she ran both.
Saturday morning, Ernestine set a personal record in the 55 with hurdles, finishing in 9.16. Next she ran the 55 without hurdles, finishing in 7.56, which qualified her for the semi-finals.
She then ran the 55 with hurdles again, finishing in 9.27, which was not fast enough to qualify for the finals.
Then, for her fourth race, Ernestine competed in the semi-finals for the 55 without hurdles and finished in 7.61, fast enough for the finals.
Ernestine then faced her fifth and final race of the day.
“The other runners were only in one,” said Kosier. “She unbelievably got herself together and set a personal record at 7.49,” earning her third place, and six points for her team. That was the only six points Guilderland took that day.
“I was really proud of her,” said Kosier. “The emotions I felt and the team felt for her are hard to put in words.”
The coach marveled at his runner’s strength. “She was remarkable. The day after my fire, I was in la-la land. I didn’t ever see her staring off in space or mourning. She kept herself collected. She did what she had to do.”
Running is “really hard,” said Ernestine. “Your dedication has to be 100 percent.”
But she loves it.
“I love how my heart starts to race,” she said.
When Ernestine competed this past weekend, just two days after her house burned, she remained focused.
“When I run, I usually don’t think about anything. My mind zones out,” she said. “I focus on the end. But last weekend, I was thinking, ‘I want another medal.’ All my medals were on the wall at home. They’re gone. I want a medal to restart.”
She got one.
“I was so happy,” said Ernestine. She was especially moved by the way her teammates rooted for her.
“To me, my track is like my family,” she said.
She has some advice to share with others: “If somebody has a fire, it’s a very tragic thing. You have to keep positive. Good things happen. I never expected people from my school and church and community to help us like they have.”
She concluded, “Always keep your hope high.”