School districts work together for communities hurt by fires
Phoenix-Talent School District speech therapist Kelly Reid delivers a load of soft, fuzzy blankets Tuesday to the district’s learning and donation center in White City. Students of all ages have sought warm and comfortable things to hold, workers at the center said. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Alexis Mendez’s family fled Phoenix on Sept. 8 when they saw the flames and heard a nearby explosion. He remembers the smoke and feeling the Almeda fire’s warmth. His 10-year-old brother still awakens from nightmares wanting to run.
They are now living in White City, about 13 miles to the north, their ordeal far from over. The family of six is split up, living in tents, borrowed rooms and friends’ homes.
“It’s hard to think about school when you don’t know where you are going to be or where you are going,” said Mendez through an interpreter. He is a sophomore at Phoenix High School.
In White City, though, Mendez found staff from two school districts ready to support him and his family.
The Almeda fire left a charred path of destruction from Ashland to Medford, while the South Obenchain swept through northeast Jackson County. None of the region’s school communities went untouched, but the districts have rallied to support hardest-hit Phoenix-Talent even as they try to help their own people deal with the trauma and get back to classes.
Before the American Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed up, school staff were responding to immediate needs. Area districts provided meals, interpreters, donations, office space, logistics, gift cards and moral support.
“It was amazing how school districts played a really big part in the response,” said Phoenix-Talent Assistant Superintendent Tiffanie Lambert.
The emergency response has continued to rely on schools. Central Medford High School hosts a resource center that included the Mexican consulate Thursday. Three of the four FEMA locations where evacuees can get help are in schools, including one that opened Thursday in the Talent Elementary School. The Red Cross opened its second emergency shelter Tuesday in the Phoenix Elementary School.
Phoenix-Talent staff have fanned out to create learning centers in the Ashland, Medford, Eagle Point and Central Point districts before classes started this week and next.
Roughly 40% of Phoenix-Talent students lost their homes, but the district isn’t sure where they ended up exactly. The population is fluid as it shifts among temporary housing.
Phoenix-Talent opened its newest remote spot Thursday in Ashland, a few miles south of Talent. The First United Methodist Church donated space and utilities. The district will staff with an aide and a teacher, who will hold her virtual classes from the building.
“It’s a warm spot where kids can stretch out if they need to and work in a quiet location,” Lambert said.
White City in the Eagle Point School District holds the largest concentration of displaced Phoenix-Talent students, about 150 at last count. The unincorporated community has a significant Latino population that welcomed friends, family and strangers evacuated from Phoenix and Talent.
Eagle Point emptied a preschool building and is letting Phoenix-Talent use it for the year for minimal costs.
On Tuesday, the center was piled high with generosity: a mound of sleeping bags, boxes of clothes, canned goods covering tables and counters, bags of personal hygiene supplies, assortments of toys, books and stuffed animals. Comfy clothes and fuzzy blankets have been in especially high demand.
Phoenix-Talent Executive Assistant Lucy Brossard, who is bilingual, was helping prepare the center for the public. She was sporting a sparkly mask because she said it was the first time in two weeks she had energy as she looked forward to school starting again. She said she can still see in the back of her mind the plume of smoke in her rearview mirror as she evacuated.
Sixth grader Mia, her daughter, set up tables of goods.
“Its nice to know I’m helping people in the community who lost their houses and everything,” she said.
Phoenix-Talent teachers will hold virtual classes from the building so they can be available for students in White City. The building has space for students to work and use the internet while social distancing.
On Tuesday, Alexis Mendez arrived with his cousin Yony Masarigos and his mother, Vilma Mendez. They picked up a tent, sleeping pads, baby food, diapers, clothes and blankets. They also arranged to get hot spots for 12 children from the two districts living in one home.
Alexis Mendez wants to stay in his Phoenix school. He said that he had adapted to the school’s culture and that it would be hard to start over in another school.
Displaced students fall under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Regardless of where they live this school year, they can continue to be part of the Phoenix-Talent system. If in-person classes resume, the district will bus the students to classes.
Many of those who lost everything are Latino. Vilma Mendez said through an interpreter that she is careful about who the family goes to for help. She said they trust the teachers and school staff they know.
Phoenix-Talent staff wear district shirts so the community knows this person is safe, Lambert said.
Phoenix-Talent will keep the outreach centers open as long as they are needed, including for in-person learning even after the schools re-open to avoid re-traumatizing students.
“We’re just trying to wrap our arms around our families,” she said. “I don’t know if some of our kids are ready to drive by the ruins of their community.”
Phoenix High senior Josephine Bolstad, who didn’t lose her home, said she is more concerned about friends and family than her education right now but that school is “a tiny escape to normal.” She said teachers are “kind of like our mini therapists.”
Ellis LeBombard, a fifth grader in the Outdoor Discovery Program of Talent Elementary, will resume classes Monday. He is excited to have some type of school, but he worries that it might be awkward if some students are on Zoom calls from temporary housing. He thinks teachers might also be extra stressed.
“I will have to do my best to be as nice to teachers as I can,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA