Paradise Lost, New Hope Found by Barbara Gruener
It was five months ago, on November 8, 2018, when a fire known as The Camp Fire, which historians are calling the deadliest wildfire in the United States in a century, ripped through and ravaged the town of Paradise. Five months ago, when this Northern CA community had to evacuate without warning even as their homes and businesses were burning to the ground. Five months ago, when the lives of the school family at Paradise Elementary were forever changed.
Paradise Elementary, a school whose students in TK through 5th grade already come to school with a pretty high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score, not only lost their homes and their school, but also lost 45% of their student population in the blink of an eye when they relocated. Others still displaced and living in trailers, hotels, garages, and other make-shift homes face an uncertain future.
Yet according to Renee Henderson, the Principal of Paradise Elementary since January 7th, theirs is “a story of heroism, of compassion, of resilience, of hope and of heart.”
After reaching out to Prosign Design to purchase our colorful hallway banners in an attempt to make their new normal at school feel like home, Henderson graciously agreed to carve out time for an interview, so that we could check in on them and find out how they’re doing after the wildfire, which decimated the entire school district. In order to open back up as quickly and efficiently as possible, schools in her district found themselves housed in places like churches, at the fairgrounds, in a Boys and Girls Club.
“Our students are spread out like dandelions in the wind,” remarked Henderson as she attempted a detailed description of their current situation. Many of her students didn’t return to school because, with no home to return to, their families went to live elsewhere. Some of the 230 students who did stay at Paradise Elementary have caregivers who have to drive upwards of an hour each morning just to catch the bus that will bring them to school. Henderson added with pride: “These families are definitely going the distance to get their children to school. It’s a good day when I can stand outside of the school and hand out gift cards to help with fuel charges.”
Paradise Elementary was able to move into an existing school building in Oroville District whose school family moved out to accommodate them. “The kids have been extremely resilient. It feels a bit like an adventure to them. We expected we might see some extreme behaviors, but we haven’t so far. In fact, we’ve had guests like authors come visit and they’ve remarked how well the children seem to have bounced back.” There are measures in place, she added, for when the children do melt down and need calming tools, like a break card and time in a dome chair. Paradise officials also petitioned the state for a waiver so that their students will be exempt from this year’s state testing, a blessing in the burden, for whichs Henderson is extremely grateful.
And how are they helping their students and staff recover? Very well aware that every child, every person on that mountain suffered trauma, Henderson has provided resources to help her students and her staff. She has held trauma meetings with her teachers and they have a trauma counselor on site. They are also working with organizations like Youth for Change and the Butte County Office of Education for counselors, resources and assistance. This compassionate leader also knows full well that there’s a long road ahead; it could be up to five years before they are able to get back in to their new building.
In the meantime, the plan is to combine two schools, if not this next year then for sure the following, to blend Paradise with Ponderosa, to have two Principals but one school. This will mean the shifting of grade levels, perhaps separating staff members who’ve worked side-by-side for a while. Henderson can already sense that there’s some anxiety that goes along with the sacrifices that will have to be made. “My biggest concern right now is my teachers. I can feel their angst. I tell them that I know it’s going to be hard, but that it’s going to be okay. We’ll stay positive because it is what it is.” She was quick to share that her teachers have been “great and really patient” despite the fact that no one is currently teaching alone, with up to four teachers and forty students in each room right now.
It seems they’re choosing to focus on the bigger picture, however, because at Paradise Elementary, Henderson says, her teachers know they “are currently teaching the students who’ll become the adults who will re-build Paradise one day.”
Out of the ashes, a new hope grows.