A cherished familiar setting can help children and youth feel secure, and a positive environment is conducive to learning. What happens when all of that gets taken away? The October 2017 wildfires destroyed thousands of family homes, ruined hundreds of businesses, and damaged or destroyed numerous schools. Students ranging from three to 18 years old lost access to their regular campuses when the Tubbs fire devastated their regular learning environments. But thanks to the dedication of administrators, teachers, and the community, new sites were quickly established, where both learning and healing could take place. Here’s a brief overview of some of the schools impacted by the firestorm.
Shortly before the Hanley fire swept through the area in 1964, the Cardinal Newman High School campus opened to students. Established in 1965, the Catholic school has long been known for its high academic standards, stellar sports programs, and student commitment to service. Though the community was shaken by the extensive damage when nearly half of the school was lost during the October firestorm, the staff quickly gathered and designed a plan to get the students back together and keep the curriculum rolling.
Not only had the 619 students lost their school, 96 families and three staff members also lost their homes, and many more were displaced as the fires raged on for weeks. Staff knew it was especially important for these families to have the support of their school community as they started the effort of rebuilding their lives. “A lot of the healing started student-to-student and parent-to-parent,” says Graham Rutherford, principal. “One of the first things we did was hold a two-day retreat for each of the classes. The students had access to the counselors, teachers and administrators at their retreats. We reassured them that there were aspects of their lives that they could still be in charge of.
It’s a hard place to be when you feel like you can’t make decisions in your life because it feels like external events have taken over. What school does for students is give them a chance to take action. They have a say in what sports or other activities they participate in, the academics that they chose, and the service projects they pick,” says Rutherford. He mentions that after the fire, a lot of people felt run over and didn’t feel like they had a lot of choices, and that returning to school helped the students feel in control again.
In the aftermath of their own tremendous loss, a number of students volunteered to help other fire survivors, according to Rutherford. Two students, Jackson Philips and Justin Foley, were honored by the Red Cross in March for their service during the fires. Philips lost his home and wanted to do something to help others. “That kind of student example shows the level of commitment our students have to their community,” says Rutherford. Families who were unaffected by the fires took both families who lost their homes and those who were evacuated into their homes. Students shared books, clothes, computers and other resources with their peers. Gift cards were collected and dispersed, and alumni as well as schools from across the nation, Catholic or not, sent donations to support the Cardinal Newman families and the school’s rebuild effort.
Local churches came to the assistance of the school, too. The students were divided by class and began attending school at four different locations. The freshman were placed at Resurrection Church in Santa Rosa, sophomores at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Windsor, juniors at Elizabeth Seton in Rohnert Park, and seniors at Saint Joseph in Cotati. Teachers traveled to multiple locations each week and used online resources to assign and collect schoolwork and communicate with their students. It wasn’t ideal but everyone chipped in and made due, including the maintenance staff. “The maintenance staff was incredible. They worked long hours at the school site and then went to the church sites and did clean up there since we promised the churches we’d provide that service.”
Through the dedication of the contractors who worked tirelessly, some days around the clock, on January 22 students were welcomed back to their campus. New portables are clustered throughout the Cardinal Newman campus since the rebuild is far from complete. The fresh whiteness of the temporary classrooms is in sharp contrast to the countless blocks of blackened neighborhoods burned to the ground. Cardinal Newman received national attention as their football team planned on making it to the championship game, though a number of players had lost their homes and practices had to be held at various locations throughout the county. Women's soccer, with six of the 18 players losing their homes, played all games on the road and went on to win the NORCAL DIII title, “a stunning achievement,” says Rutherford. He says that Cardinal Newman is aligning resources and applying them correctly so that they can complete the rebuild in the near future. “Multiple parents have said that their son or daughter will learn a lot from this experience. The kids know each other better now, they’ve grown emotionally, and there will be distinct markers that will come from this part of their lives. They’ve learned that the community cares about them and that each one of us needs to do our part to help one another.”
Kathy Ryan, principal of Saint Rose elementary school and preschool, had a myriad of issues to contend with after the fires. Firefighters from Windsor took a heroic stand on the roof of the school’s kindergarten the night of the fire, and managed to save the majority of the school. The water pressure was so low they had to make a run for water at nearby Sutter Hospital to fill up their engines to continue battling the blaze. However, when the schools indoor sprinklers were re-pressurized a few weeks later, they unexpectedly went off, drenching the school and necessitating a complete remodel of the interior. The kindergarten and second grade classrooms, along with a newly refurbished covered eating area, were lost to the fires but GMH contractors worked nonstop, around the clock at times, to get the school up and running again, with a return to the school on the same day as Cardinal Newman.
Saint Rose preschoolers, however, were unable to return to their beloved school at that time. The entire preschool was estimated to have burned down in just 12 to 20 minutes. After the fires, Ryan and staff searched through the rubble for any salvageable items of the fire. They found six small tiles that had been hand-painted by students. The school plans on displaying the tiles after the rebuild is complete. Like the other damaged schools, the preschool looked to other school sites and within five weeks was able to temporarily relocate to what was formerly Saint Luke Lutheran School.
Claudia Oseguera had taken the helm as the preschool director just a little more than a year earlier, but her own children had attended the elementary school and she was already immersed in the school community. Ryan and Oseguera drove to the school site together after the fires, witnessing the eerie site of burned out houses and charred trees on both sides of Old Redwood Highway as they drove to the schools from Windsor. Driving toward the burn site confirmed the preschool building was completely gone. “It was very emotional. We mourned for 10 minutes, said a prayer and then hit the pavement running,” says Oseguera.
“It’s been challenging and I take it one day at a time,” says Oseguera whose school serves 56 families and has 40 children on-site most days. Not only has she had to contend with setting up the preschool in a new location, but she also had to work simultaneously to obtain waivers and pass inspections for the modular portable and a playground at the elementary school site next to where the old preschool building sat so that the preschool could be moved back to the Saint Rose School campus. “Kathy Ryan has been an incredible mentor during this process and an amazing leader,” says Oseguera, “I couldn’t have done this without her support and guidance.”
Oseguera set about contacting parents. Some families had moved away temporarily or were staying in hotels outside of the area. Thirteen of families enrolled had lost their homes, and three of those families had babies post fire. An initial play date was set up at the parish on October 19 so children could see one another and parents could be informed of both school’s plans to move forward. After the play date, parents told Oseguera that their preschoolers were excited about coming back to school. Upon moving into St. Luke’s Church, the staff spent the first two months not only serving the children, but also trying to figure out what the families needed the most.
Beyond performing normal preschool services, staff became an ear for parents who sometimes shared when they had a bad experience with an insurance adjuster or were frustrated with trying to find a place to live and what lies ahead in the future. “The children came in smiling and running, ready to go and that was a relief for their parents to offer some normalcy. And our staff was able to be there for the parents as a sounding board,” says Oseguera. The preschool received several donations, providing gift cards, clothes, handmade quilts, teddy bears and more to fire affected families. “People are settled in now, but there’s still a lot of fear about the unknown. Some families are frustrated with the rebuilding process for their homes and others aren’t sure if they’ll have enough money to build the same house they had before. Stress is a big factor in their lives right now,” says Oseguera. “I would like to see what our local agencies could do or offer for families and children who were directly affected by the fires. Our preschool students have lived through a traumatic life event that has changed them forever.”
The original preschool was completed in 2008 for $1 million, but today’s estimate for the rebuild is $1.4 million. Though the preschool was well insured there will still be a gap that they hope to fill through fundraising and donations.
ACE Sonoma (Education and Therapy for Children and Young Adults Diagnosed with High functioning Autism and Other Neuro-Developmental Impairments) was located at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts (LBC) in Santa Rosa. ACE Sonoma was directly in the path of the Tubbs fire as it consumed its way westward at a frightening speed. Only four days later, while the campus was still smoldering after the devastating impact of the fire, Andrew Bailey, founder and chief executive officer, hosted a town hall meeting for the students, parents, and other affected Anova family members.
“At the time we were in a reactive state of mind trying to assess the situation. However, that town hall meeting and the spirit of the attendees set the tone for the determination and the unrelenting drive towards emerging successfully from this,” says Bailey. All but three classrooms were gone, along with more than 300 computers and the main campus data server. There were 125 students and their families who had no idea what was going to happen next. Bailey sizes up the challenge that they were dealt. “We had to redo what it had taken us 15 years to build.” With the love and support of the community around them, even from people and organizations across the country that they had never heard of before, Anova was able to find its footing. “We were back on our campus on February 9, exactly three months after the fire started,” says Bailey.
On October 30, three weeks after the fire started, the students at ACE Sonoma were back in school again. One-third of the kids were temporarily relocated to the Bennett Valley School District, one-third to the City of Healdsburg, and one-third to the Anova administrative office on Concourse Blvd. in Santa Rosa. Bailey cannot praise all the parties involved in the effort of getting the students relocated and back in school so quickly enough. “The City of Healdsburg, Bennett Valley School District, and Rincon Valley Fire were all awesome. They painted walls, put in new carpets, installed fire alarms, and so much more to make available space into school space. And all levels of government kicked in and helped us help the kids stay in school,” says Bailey. In particular, Bailey commends Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore for his guidance and facilitation through the permits and approvals process, saying it was absolutely key in allowing Anova to re-open so soon after the disaster. “The resiliency of our Anova family and the passion of our community were the main ingredients allowing us to stay operational during the immediate aftermath of the fire and back here at LBC after three months.” Their landlord, LBC, has made a large portion of their property available to ACE Sonoma for the bungalow campus solution in place today. LBC staff summarized the spirit behind the recovery effort best when they told Bailey this: “Happy childhoods can’t be rescheduled, but concerts can.”
Sonoma County natives Renee Whitlock-Hemsouvanh and Jenny Kenyon are passionate about educating young children. Their approach to early childhood education is holistic. Part of the philosophy means taking care of their charges by making sure the teachers who work with the children have adequate training and pay to do what they believe is one of the most important jobs in the world. “We are in a business that gives back to the community in many ways. It feels good to support something that we value so deeply,” says Whitlock-Hemsouvanh. She and Kenyon own three preschools, Hidden Valley Community Preschool, Mark West Community Preschool and Humbolt Community Preschool. Each school has a waiting list—a testament to need and desire for the exceptional preschool services they offer.
They purchased the Mark West preschool site in 2013 because they wanted to use the unique space to create a special place for little ones. Since 1965, the location has been used to serve children. First, Barbara and Mark Lane built and ran the Guadalupe School, then leased the property to the Village Charter school for a few years. “It was a magical place. It looked small from the outside but when you entered the building it completely opened up to an outdoor space that included native vegetation and a large garden,” says Whitlock-Hemsouvanh. They did a complete interior “child-friendly” remodel and transformed the outdoor area into a full acre of nature based learning complete with goats, chickens, and rabbits.
Brandon Trammell, whose daughter has attended the school for three years, has been commuting to get his daughter to school even after his family moved to Petaluma two years ago. “There’s no local school that felt comparable to me and my wife,” says Trammell. Part of what makes the school different is the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching, but another unique aspect has to do with Whitlock-Hemsouvanh and Kenyon’s business model, their dedication to providing a high-level educational experience at an attainable cost. “We choose to rise above and beyond California state standards because we feel so strongly that this is a great place for educated teachers to be.”
In fact, they pay some of the highest preschool wages in the county and offer health benefits along with access to professional development to their staff. “Though we’re a privately-owned business, we run the business at no profit because we adamantly believe in the importance of compensating our teachers,” says Whitlock-Hemsouvanh. Licensed to have 60 children on site at one time, they served 100 children at Mark West, but had to lower that number to 80 after the move to their new temporary location near the Coddingtown Mall.
Kenyon lost her home to the fires, but along with Whitlock-Hemsouvanh, still made the teachers and school families her first priority. “The teachers did outreach to the families, helping those who wanted counseling get connected,” says Kenyon. The Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4 Cs) supported the staff that lost homes with gift cards and money. “There was such an outpouring to help from the community,” says Kenyon. The building that now houses Mark West Community School was occupied by a preschool run by Durelle Finster. Finster also had two other preschool sites and offered to move her students to the other sites so that Whitlock-Hemsouvanh and Kenyon could take over her lease at the Coddingtown site and get their students back to school. When parents visited the new space, they felt it needed a shift to bring it closer to what the old site was like. They gathered, brought friends, and put their hearts into refurbishing every weekend from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for a month, sourcing donations and materials to get the job done.
“Renee called us after the fires and I went to the Mark West site to meet with her and Jenny. They were concerned with being underinsured, so we did a preliminary structural design for them along with renderings pro bono to help them with fundraising,” says Joss Hudson of EcoSteel. Trying to re-design older buildings with new code compliance with new code upgrades that are required for permitting, is one of the biggest challenges of replacement insurance, especially when construction costs are so high. Whitlock-Hemsouvanh and Kenyon, like many other fire affected business and homeowners who lost structures, are facing huge barriers to rebuilding. For many, being under insured is just one piece of the difficult rebuild puzzle that includes infrastructure costs, ADA compliancy codes, and other challenges.
“Our waiting list demonstrates that there’s a deficit of high quality child centers in the area. We offer something that connects with families and now we have to turn families away. We can’t provide for our community when we don’t have spaces to do that,” says Whitlock-Hemsouvanh. She notes that most preschools are owned by women, many of whom are starting to retire. Because property is worth so much, they are often selling their properties to non-education oriented buyers to fund their retirements.
“What are families who work going to do when there is nothing to replace these preschools? A lot of people who come here are recruited by larger companies. These families need preschools for their children so that they can work,” says Kenyon. Shortly after the fires, the community held a spaghetti feed fundraiser for the school with Supervisor Gore acting as the MC for the auction. Even though the event raised more than $50,000, it doesn’t close the gap on the disparity between insurance money and what is needed for the rebuild, but Whitlock-Hemsouvanh and Kenyon will continue to work to find ways to bring their Mark West school site back to life.
What each of the schools found was that even without their home base, they were still a community. These communities have grown closer, stronger and more resilient as a result of the shared hardships they’ve endured because of the devastation caused by the wildfires. Though some of the schools were well insured, others were not and building prices increase each year. None of the damaged schools were insured at a level that will pay for 100 percent of the rebuild costs, but that’s not deterring most of the schools from moving forward with rebuilding and standing strong again.
Each of the following schools is in need of financial and other assistance for rebuilding, rehabilitation, or renovation. Contact the individual school for further information about how you can help.
Cardinal Newman High School
Hidden Valley Satellite School
Mark West Community Preschool
Redwood Adventist Academy
Roseland University Prep
Saint Rose Catholic School & Saint Rose Preschool
Rachel McGregor’s senior year of high school at Cardinal Newman was off to a great start, but that changed at two o’clock in the morning on October 10 when one of her classmates called to tell her that he could see fire heading toward her house in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. “He told me I had to get my family out. I didn’t know what was going on,” says McGregor. She went to wake her parents, but they were already awake and her father told her and her mother to take the dog and head to her uncle’s house in Marin, saying he’d meet them there later. As McGregor and her mother left, her father took off to alert their neighbors.
Not long after arriving at Marin, McGregor learned that the barn in Petaluma where her horse was stabled was being evacuated. The next day she helped move 50 horses to a new location, away from the raging fires. “I found out that my school had been burned while I was evacuating horses. I kept getting texts from friends, then I heard on the radio that Cardinal Newman had burned. Some people said the school was fine, others said it was all the way gone.” Eventually, she learned that about half of the school was gone.
“I was depressed and confused as to why this was happening to me. You hear about so many tragedies happening in the world. When this happened, I couldn’t believe I was now one of the victims you hear about on the news.” McGregor admits she was in shock for a while. On October 10th, the day after she left her home, she found out that her entire house had burned to the ground. “I was excited about my senior year, about getting to do things you only get to do as a senior, and now not only was our family home gone but my school was gone, too.” McGregor found that her school community, friends and family, would help each other get through the devastating time. “I learned so much by going through an experience that most 17 year olds don’t go through. I wanted to stay strong for my family. We had to find a place to live, and figure out how to go on,” says McGregor.
One of the concerns McGregor and other seniors had after the fires was getting through the college application process. She was initially worried that her test scores and transcripts might have been destroyed. She also didn’t know how she’d manage to mentally prepare for writing up to 10 college essays and completing the applications and wondering where she’d be living the next school year when she wasn’t even sure where she’d be living the next day. She was afraid she might have to switch schools if Cardinal Newman couldn’t continue to operate, and that she’d be separated from her friends and social activities. She was nervous about her future. Thankfully, Cardinal Newman staff was able to secure extensions for college applications and helped seniors navigate through the application process.
“The kids in my class that lost homes grew stronger, and we comforted each other. Just by being together in such a small area for so long, we got to know each other better than when we were spread out on campus,” says McGregor. “We were able to come together more and have compassion for each other and let go of anything that had happened in the past. Spending this extra time with my classmates has made me realize how much I’ll miss them after high school.”
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