Susan Hupp, director of Student Support Services at Black Hills State University, far left, Juli Larson, Aaron Morlock’s SSS advisor, and SSS staff members Cody McMichael and Peggy Madrid present Aaron, middle, with a stocking filled with monetary donations from BHSU faculty, staff and students. Morlock, his wife Sara, and their 4-year-old daughter Arabella, lost their home in a fire during the October Winter Storm Atlas.
Aaron Morlock had his last final Wednesday morning, and just like most college students who are finished with a semester of late night study sessions, lectures and tests he breathed a sigh of relief.

However, Morlock’s last test signified much more than the start of winter break. For the Black Hills State University student, it was the end of a challenging few months and a new beginning for him and his family.

Aaron, his wife Sara, also a BHSU student, and their four-year-old daughter Arabella lost everything in a house fire during October’s Winter Storm Atlas. In the last few months, Aaron, Sara, and Arabella, with the help of several communities and BHSU, have been putting their life back together while remaining dedicated to their studies.

On Wednesday, the family will spend Christmas together in their new home.

The last few months have been difficult for the family, but they are in a good place now.

“It’s been a pretty heavy challenge, but we bounced back in about two months. We dug our heels in deep. There are a lot of things that happen to people that you won’t be recovering from in two months,” he said.

The family may have lost their belongings; however, they are grateful they were unharmed in the fire. After observing power lines snapping around them including one which was close to touching the ground near their house, the couple decided to pack some items and stay the night in a hotel. The next morning their landlord called to tell them about the fire. The intense weather conditions made it difficult for crews from the Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department to save the home.

“It was just kind of hard to fathom,” said Aaron of what he was thinking after hearing the news. “I guess I was less worried about the stuff we lost and more worried about what we had to do next. What are we going to do for beds? Where are we going to live?”

Soon after locals learned of the family’s situation, donations started to pour in, not only from Spearfish and BHSU, but also from Gillette and Circle, Mont., the hometowns of Sara and Aaron.  Someone also donated a two-week stay at the Spearfish Holiday Inn for the young family.

“We were really thankful. We still are. We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Susan Hupp, BHSU director of Student Support Services (SSS), organized a “Stuff the Stocking” fundraiser where faculty, staff, and students donated money to help the couple purchase whatever they needed for their home, including Christmas gifts.

Hupp along with Juli Larson, Aaron’s SSS advisor, and SSS staff members Cody McMichael and Peggy Madrid, helped the students get everything they needed to finish the semester from replacing books to gathering notes from professors.

“We did everything we could to help so he could pick up where he left off as easy as possible,” Larson said. “Aaron and I have had a lot of conversations about a lot of different subject matters. He’s endured a lot and he is like a rubber band moving forward and wondering ‘what do I do next.’”

Hupp and McMichael said they were amazed at how committed the couple was in pushing forward and finishing the semester.

“I don’t think the average person can think of having to put you house back together while keeping up with work and school,” Hupp said. 

Aaron said he briefly thought about quitting school once. “I thought about it one day and didn’t take one step out of my car before I realized I couldn’t.”

Aaron said the fire is something the family rarely thinks about anymore. “A lot of it is over for us. We are in this new place. We settled ourselves in. We are paid up. We are comfortable there, and we have the things we need. For us the fire is a distant memory now. We don’t think about it a lot.”

His goals for the New Year include making the Dean’s List, keeping up with his courses and graduating with his degree in elementary education as soon as possible.