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Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2012, 11:04 AM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 16 May 2012, 10:55 PM EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WISH/AP) - Henryville students lost their school in a tornado - and with it went a lot of special moments. Wednesday, country band Lady Antebellum helped them make new memories, with a special show in nearby Louisville. It started as an online competition to bring the band to town for prom night. But it became much more when other schools advocated for Henryville to win.
The Grammy Award-winning country music trio Lady Antebellum performed a "mini-prom" for students of a southern Indiana town that was devastated by a tornado in early March. They also held a benefit concert at the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville for thousands, to raise money to help rebuild.
The sold-out concert and an online fundraiser raised $285,000 for the community of Henryville.
“For the class of 2012, what a way to end the year. Think about what they did,” said Troy Albert, Henryville High School Principal.
Silver Creek High School students, typically a rival of Henryville High, won an online contest to bring in the top-selling act for the students of Henryville. The national contest started out, for Lady Antebellum, as just a contest for schools to get their trio to sing at the school's prom.
It turned into much more. Lady Antebellum even toured Henryville Wednesday before playing the benefit concert, and at the students' mini-prom upstairs in the YUM! Center.
Hillary Scott, of Lady Antebellum, told reporters she wouldn't forget this night, adding, "It was heartbreaking in a lot of ways.... Where there's so much sadness and devastation... there's hope being built in its place, so that was really inspiring to see."
At a prom-style party in Louisville's downtown arena overlooking the Ohio River, the band surprised the students by playing for them in a private show.
"Each and every one of you have inspired us, and we're so honored to be here, I know it's your second prom technically," said Scott. The band couldn't play at the high school's actual prom last month because of a scheduling conflict.
Scott and another band member, Charles Kelley, selected two students to dance with during the short acoustic show.
Henryville student Sean Murphy told 24-Hour News 8, "I think this is a lot of fun that they can put this together. Obviously we've been through a lot of hard stuff. It's kinda hard to just deal with school, we really need to have stuff like this to keep us focused and want to go back."
"I think it's for our community as a whole to give up an open door so we can get through this," said student Kailey Hughes. Hughes said she was grateful for the generosity of everyone who had donated to her community.
Henryville junior Kelsey Guernsey said she couldn't believe how close she was to the band.
Her home, like many of the students' houses, was damaged in the March 2 tornado that destroyed the school. She said private concert with the band was a high point of an otherwise tragic year.
"It seemed kind of unbelievable because Henryville is so small and we really don't ever get anything really big like this," she said.
Mary Beth Coffman is the teacher who helped students at nearby Silver Creek High School create the video entry for the band's prom contest.
"It's still hard to believe. I still have to pinch myself," she told 24-Hour News 8. "Words are my life and I can't put this experience into words."
Schools as far away as northern Wisconsin submitted YouTube videos on behalf of Henryville, an unincorporated town hit by two tornadoes — one packing 175 mph winds — on a day when storms killed 13 people in Indiana and 24 in Kentucky.
Hillary Scott said the band was moved by what she called the "selfless" entries from other schools, including rival Silver Creek High School in nearby Sellersburg, Ind., which actually was the band's pick to win the contest but students there backed the Henryville bid.
"That was just such, honestly, an encouraging thing to think that those high schoolers, that generation, they're that helpless, they want to help each other that much," she said. "It was definitely an easy decision."
Each of Henryville's juniors and seniors received five tickets for floor seating at the show. The juniors and seniors at Silver Creek, the rival Clark County school that nominated Henryville, each received one ticket, said Tahnee Brown of concert promoter National Shows 2.
Lady A's Kelley said the band hoped to lift the Henryville community's spirits.
"We want to just go there and hopefully bring a little joy, meet them, shake their hands, encourage them to try to get through it as best as they can," the singer said.
The sold-out benefit is accompanied by an online drive that's one of several disaster relief efforts for Henryville. That online drive had generated more than $119,000 by Wednesday morning, but concert organizers say that reflects only a portion of the money that's been collected.
"With everything's that's happened — the tornado and the destruction — now we'll have something else to remember for the rest of our lives," said Henryville junior class vice president Kaitlyn Maloney, 17, who rode out the March 2 storm with her parents in the basement of their Henryville home. "This will give us something to remember that's happy."
The show also could be a sort of homecoming for many town residents, said Monroe Township Trustee Allen Bottorff, a lifelong Henryville resident whose home was damaged in the storms and lost a second one he and his wife were remodeling. He planned to attend the show with his family, including his 18-year-old twins, son Tanner and daughter Drew.
"It's going to be quite a bit of a reunion for a lot of people who have been scattered about," Bottorff said.