Red Cross opens shelter in Phoenix school
Nadia Soto DeAvila, a bilingual Red Cross worker from Rhode Island, offers a wide range of information and resources Tuesday at the Phoenix Elementary School shelter. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter Tuesday in Phoenix Elementary School, one of only two in Jackson County.
“We wanted to create a safe and secure environment that our families are familiar with,” Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said.
Although the Almeda fire that ripped through Phoenix and Talent on Sept. 8 destroyed more than 2,300 residential structures, displacing families across the region, all the school district buildings survived. The Phoenix school is just blocks from the blackened rubble of local businesses.
Across the parking lot from the shelter, families were picking up school supplies at the elementary’s front entrance. Phoenix-Talent is planning to start K-8 classes Monday, Sept. 28.
Fourth grader Madison Shrader said she is excited. Thinking about school helps her feel more normal, she said. Terra Shrader, her mother, said their house survived but Madison is still anxious from the evacuation.
Maria Virgen was picking up a Chromebook for her fourth grade daughter. They lost everything and are staying with her son’s girlfriend. She said her daughter is also excited to see her teachers again and she appreciated all the school is doing to help.
School officials say that roughly 90% of their students were evacuated and as much as 40% were left homeless. School district staff have been visiting families wherever they can find them.
The Red Cross operates an emergency shelter at the Jackson County Expo north of Medford, but the school district and local municipal officials wanted to bring families back to the communities as soon as possible.
Phoenix and Talent lost much of their affordable housing, and community leaders are worried people won’t be able to move back, that the towns’ populations will drift away.
“We feel like if we have one central location for families to come to, we can create and maintain that community that we value,” Barry said.
The district donated the space, and the Red Cross is providing staffing and resources. The Red Cross created a dorm with cots and temporary dividers in the school gym, and hot meals are served in the cafeteria. The shelter is operating under physical distancing and health protocols, and it has a medical area with a separate entrance and bathrooms for coronavirus precautions.
School and Red Cross officials say that families will be able to stay at the shelter as long as needed. The driving goal was to offer school families a safe space, but the shelter is open to anyone who needs it.
Red Cross staff, who have come from all over the United States, are providing bilingual resources and support 24 hours a day. The shelter’s many Spanish signs included its “Declaration of Impartiality,” guaranteeing help no matter race, religion or citizenship status.
“The statement of impartiality is so they know they are safe when they come here,” said Stephen O’Brien, the shelter manager.
The Phoenix-Talent School district is nearly 40% Latino, and some community members are cautious about accessing services. Barry said he wanted the shelter on school property so that staff members -- familiar and trusted faces -- could help offer services.
“We want to make sure our families are treated with dignity,” Barry said.
Greta Gustafson, the Red Cross spokesperson in Medford, said they opened the shelter because school district and city officials saw a need for families to return to familiar surroundings.
“This is somewhere that their children have gone to school,” Gustafson said. “In the midst of what is such an unknown and difficult situation, we wanted to be able to provide that sense of comfort of being closer to home.”
Dedicated community partners such as the school district are essential to the Red Cross’ work, she said.
“One organization can’t do this alone,” Gustafson said. “Disasters are definitely a community response.”
The shelter opened Tuesday morning. School and Red Cross staff didn’t know how many families might use the shelter, but if Phoenix Elementary fills up, the school district and the Red Cross have agreed to quickly open another shelter at Talent Middle School.
In the Phoenix Elementary library Tuesday, staff were receiving training on providing grief counseling.
Principal Shawna Schleif said the fire recovery support is closely related to the trauma-informed care they have been working on for years.
“In some ways, we are prepared to handle this,” she said. However, she also reminds her staff that to best serve students, they must take care of themselves. Some staff have lost homes, and everyone has been affected in some way.
Staff have been calling families with three questions: Are you safe? Where are you? What are your needs?
Schleif is glad to have the shelter at her school.
“It eases some of the helplessness knowing there is that resource so close to us,” she said.
The school also provides a foundation that a battered community can cling to.
“I feel so blessed that our school remains constant when so much is changing,” Schleif said.
Inside the entrance, a mother and daughter talked to staff members. They had lost their home, but they were getting ready for school.
“We’re here,” said the mother. “That’s what matters.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA