With a little help from my friends#039; (Local teen learns life lessons online)

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 19, 2002

&uot;Can I sail through the changing ocean tides, can I handle the seasons of my life…a landslide brought me down…&uot;

Song lyrics often evoke vivid, at times painful, memories of certain times and places in our lives. For 16-year-old Erica Knight, the poignant words of &uot;Landslide&uot;, a song penned by her all-time favorite singer-songwriter, Stevie Nicks, captures such a moment.

In fact, classic film buff Erica might describe one fateful evening with a paraphrased line from one of her favorite Bette Davis films: &uot;We should have fastened our seat belts

it was one bumpy night.&uot;

On Saturday evening, November 24, 2001, Erica and her family were at their rural south Butler County home. A devoted music fan and keen trivia buff, the teenager recalls she was ‘surfing’ the Internet for information on the band Fleetwood Mac that night.

It’s not an evening the normally talkative McKenzie High student finds easy to discuss.

&uot;It started hailing really hard all of a sudden. I honestly didn’t realize a tornado was about to hit…things got crazy. I remember grabbing my little sister Brittany and holding on to her. She’s so tiny

I kept thinking she might just blow away if I didn’t hang on. We were all down on the floor,&uot; Erica recalls.

&uot;The winds were terrible. Walls were falling in, things crashing. Glass was breaking and flying around…it was wild,&uot; the teen remembers.

Erica’s quick move to shield her younger sister protected the seven-year-old girl from any major injuries, though both girls suffered some cuts and bruises from the flying debris. Erica’s right wrist also was fractured in the storm.

However, one look at her parents and Erica knew quick aid was needed. Stepdad Billy Morgan’s arm appeared to be badly injured and he had suffered a hard blow to the head. Her mom, Tammie, was bleeding profusely from head injuries.

The bare-footed teenager ran a dangerous gauntlet through dark fields strewn with downed power lines before making it to a neighbor’s house to summon help.

Examination at the local hospital proved that Billy had suffered a concussion in addition to the serious cuts on his arm. Tammie had numerous broken cranial bones requiring several surgeries and a lengthy stay in the hospital.

The family’s mobile home was a total loss. The two girls were sent to live temporarily in the homes of friends and relatives while their parents recovered from their injuries and arrangements for housing were made.

&uot;The funny thing is, my mom used to always say stuff like, ‘Erica, I am going to bring a bulldozer in your room if you don’t clean it up soon.’ Then this happened and she told me, ‘Honestly, honey

this is NOT what I meant,’&uot; Erica recalls with a quick, wry smile.

The family mourned the loss of family heirlooms, childhood photos and other mementoes they could not replace. Erica particularly missed her music and video collections and her online connection to others sharing her same interests.

The teen had grown accustomed to regularly ‘sitting in’ as a guest at a family-oriented Internet chat room called DanceArts.com. The cyberspace connection allowed Erica to readily share her opinions on the world of movies, musical theater and dance with others worldwide. (An example of a typical &uot;Erica-ism&uot;: &uot;I think many modern movies don’t have much plot and a lot of them are seriously and sadly dumb.&uot;)

Erica decided to ask a friend, Carol Connally-Walters (former librarian of McKenzie School) to help her out by sending news of the family’s calamity to Erica’s Internet friends. So, &uot;I e-mailed the Dance Arts people a message explaining what had happened,&uot; says Connally-Walters.

Connally-Walters figured she’d hear back soon. However, she never imagined just what the return message would be.

Sarah, a 20-year-old Canadian college student, responded with the following e-mail to the librarian:

&uot;I have contacted Erica’s online friends and we are all eager to help. If we can get a secure mailing address…we will have a new computer with monitor shipped to her at no cost [as] our gift…it seems appropriate since this is how we met…Erica is a popular girl in a determined crowd of people, everyone is more than willing to do all they can to help her…send Erica our love.&uot;

Connally-Walters says she was amazed when she read about the generous offer. &uot;To want to do this for a girl [they had never met] living hundreds, even thousands of miles away

well, I tell you it certainly restored my faith in humanity.&uot;

To Sara and Erica’s other online friends, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Sarah explains, &uot;Erica’s enthusiasm for classic movies and ‘all things Stevie’ [Nicks] is catching…she sweeps you up in it…she’s brightened my ‘down’ days many times.&uot;

&uot;Sol Mom&uot;, a self-described ‘dancer’s mom from Arizona’, says this: &uot;What happened to Erica affected us…[we] visualized what it must be like for a young person to have their whole world swept away. We wanted to make a difference…so we pooled our resources and talents and found a way to reconnect.&uot;

Carol Connally-Walters became the &uot;Mail Lady&uot; through whom the group’s secret plans could unfold. Greetings, cards and gifts for Erica and her family were sent from all parts of the world to Alabama via the Walters family’s e-mail and ‘snail-mail’ boxes.

Sarah wrote requesting information she could pass on to Erica’s friends about local stores so they could purchase gift certificates for Erica’s family members. ‘Sol Mom’ generously boxed up her entire collection of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks CDs to send to her young Alabama friend. Sarah also purchased the teen a Dance Arts membership with all the ‘perks’. It meant no more ‘just visiting’ online for Erica

once the computer arrived.

The Canadian also arranged for the head of Nick’s online fan club, Nicksfix.com, to send the teen a goody box filled with posters, photos, patches and other ‘cool’ Stevie stuff.

The piece de resistance of the whole caper, of course, was the computer. Everyone, it seemed, was eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Sarah, Erica's Canadian Internet friend, e-mailed Connally-Walters on December 13: &uot;We’ve been tracking the computer’s progress online and it indicates that it has arrived in Alabama. Does that mean you have it or it’s in a holding place there…we’re all waiting impatiently to see Erica online again.&uot;

On December 14, an excited Connally-Walters responded: &uot;Erica’s computer arrived last night…maybe we can get her out of the house [tomorrow] while we get the computer in!&uot;

The big day arrived on Saturday, December 15 when Connally-Walters and McKenzie teacher Susan Andrews (an Erica fan since Knight’s dance class days with Andrews as instructor) journeyed to the family’s temporary rental home to deliver the surprise. Erica’s step dad got both girls out of the house on a false ‘errand’ allowing the two women to slip the computer inside.

Erica, in her own words, was &uot;blown away&uot; by the surprise waiting for her.

It didn’t take long at all for her to have the new computer hooked up. Soon she was online again. The first e-mail message Erica sent out consisted of just two words: &uot;I’M HEEEEEEEEEEERE!&uot; That said it all…

This spring, Erica and her family moved into a new home. Their physical injuries are largely healed.

Erica now has her driver’s license, her own wheels and plans to do &uot;a bit of everything&uot; this summer, from writing poetry to hanging out at the pool with pals.

The ebullient teen likely will spend a considerable amount of time carrying on both deep and light-hearted discussions with her online friends.

&uot;I really want people to recognize the Internet is NOT this evil, terrible thing…I’ve learned there are a lot of really good things and good people online,&uot; she insists.