CTA & You

North Bay Fires: Healing, Rebuilding Continues

In the aftermath of North Bay wildfires, CTA educators step up to lead and help

 

Text, photos and videos by Mike Myslinski
School sign of the times: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
School sign of the times: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”

Their acts of kindness and solidarity will be helping to heal their students, families and communities for months and years to come.

In the aftermath of the horrific North Bay wildfires in October, second-grade teacher Paul Drake launched a donation center run by teachers and parents for families of his hard-hit Hidden Valley Elementary School in an empty storefront in downtown Santa Rosa. The center’s mission quickly expanded to help scores of families at many Santa Rosa schools. Educators and other volunteers worked countless hours, handing out free clothing, bicycles, canned food, blankets, bedding, plush toy animals, books, coffee makers and much more. Truckloads of donations arrived from the Bay Area, Santa Cruz, Eureka, Reno and Southern California. (Note: Since our story was published, the center has now been closed.)

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Drake and many other CTA members went to extraordinary lengths to help and comfort students and families. This doesn’t surprise Santa Rosa Teachers Association (SRTA) President Will Lyon, whose district, Santa Rosa City Schools, suffered severely.

“Teachers get into the profession because they like to help people. They’re problem-solvers, and they’re results-oriented. They couldn’t help but shine,” says Lyon, an English teacher at Santa Rosa High School. “They stood up and helped because they had a need in their souls to help their kids and their community.”

Santa Rosa Teachers Association Treasurer Margie BradyLong coordinated the distribution of 900 donated backpacks full of school supplies to students at 23 Santa Rosa City Schools district campuses
Santa Rosa Teachers Association Treasurer Margie BradyLong coordinated distribution of 900 donated backpacks full of school supplies to students at 23 Santa Rosa City Schools district campuses.

CTA chapters mobilize

As the holidays approach, the work to rebuild lives and regain normalcy in the burn zones is far from over. Times are hard for North Bay educators and students who lost their homes and family memories in the devastating wildfires, among the most destructive and deadly in California’s recent history. In Sonoma County alone, at least 1,298 students, 146 teachers and 89 support staff lost homes, the county office of education says.

In their education communities across several counties, many teachers continue to shoulder the healing process at their schools. The burned region’s spirit was seen in student-made signs on school campuses declaring: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” Rising from the ashes of destroyed houses and a few lost schools is a union community spirit that’s making a difference.

CTA and its chapters have been visible and active. Lyon says a sampling of the SRTA activists who stepped up includes English teacher Trish Terrell (on the chapter’s grievance committee), who coordinated obtaining and distributing 900 donated backpacks filled with school supplies to 23 school sites; Margie BradyLong (treasurer), a math teacher who took the lead on doing paperwork for countless CTA and SRTA grants to members and retired teachers; and Micah Carlin-Goldberg (webmaster), sixth-grade teacher and a social media force, filling the union’s website with fire and donation news.

In mid-November, Drake, the educator who launched the donation center, announced an “adopt a family” program where donors are filling the specific needs of more than 80 families at Hidden Valley School, where he says about a quarter of the 600 students lost homes, in addition to six teachers and support staff. Its Satellite School serving 80 kids was destroyed. Learn more at the donation center’s website.

“It’s just important to me and to all of us to do everything we can to support these families that are such a huge part of our lives,” Drake says. “They’ve gone through such a trauma here.”

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Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Will Lyon, right, and SRTA activist Paul Drake in the donation center Drake started to help fire victims recover from devastating damage, like that in the city’s decimated Coffey Park neighborhood.

“It’s just important to me and to all of us to do everything we can to support these families that are such a huge part of our lives,” Drake says. “They’ve gone through such a trauma here.”

Educators statewide are pitching in, as did many at October’s CTA State Council in Los Angeles. After hearing teachers from the burn zones announce the Redwood Service Center Council GoFundMe account, delegates and colleagues donated $7,100 in five hours. “We stand with you and your families,” CTA President Eric Heins vowed.

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In five hours, delegates and colleagues donated $7,100.

One of those who asked for Council’s help that day was Napa Valley Educators Association President Gayle Young. Her chapter made sure the three local teachers who lost homes each received $1,000 from NVEA soon after the Atlas Fire hit that area, which shut down the district for two weeks.

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Announcing a GoFundMe site for fire victim colleagues, CTA State Council delegates asking for help in October are, from left, Ola King-Claye, Santa Rosa Teachers Association; CTA Board member Jerry Eaton; Gayle Young, president of the Napa Valley Educators Association; Jeremiah Price and Jay Juhl, Rincon Valley Teachers Association.

In several school districts, special catastrophic fire leave banks and relaxed personal leave rules were negotiated by union teacher leaders and CTA staff so educators could have more paid time off to deal with rebuilding their homes and disrupted lives.

Disaster grants help out

Many displaced Santa Rosa-area teachers applied for CTA Disaster Relief Fund grants as they balance classroom duties and tending their disrupted lives.

Zoe Miller, who lost her house, used part of her $3,500 emergency grants to buy clothes and shoes immediately, since she had little time to pack as her family fled the fires at her home that frightening night of Oct. 8.

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Zoe Miller points to where her home once stood.

She gently welcomed her Piner High School students back after the fires shut down district schools for nearly three weeks. “They saw me as the teacher I was before the fire, which is what I wanted to achieve,” she says. “It’s easy to say it’s going to be OK, but it’s not going to be OK right away. It’s going to take a long time.”

“It’s easy to say it’s going to be OK, but it’s not going to be OK right away. It’s going to take a long time.”

One of the few things she grabbed as she fled her home was students’ ungraded homework, because grades were due soon. “I thought I probably should get this done for the kids.”

For Nancy Blair, some of the money went for a down payment on a used truck to replace the family’s 2008 Toyota Sienna that burned at her Mark West Estates home in Santa Rosa. “That was wonderful. It was extremely helpful.”

Santa Rosa middle school teacher Nancy Blair lost her home to the firestorm
Santa Rosa middle school teacher Nancy Blair lost her home to the firestorm

Around 1 a.m. that hot Oct. 9, she escaped in a second car with her husband, twin 10-year-old boys, two dogs, her cellphone and some medicines. “We thought we had more time.”

Like many North Bay educators, she was given a list of her students at Rincon Valley Middle School who had lost their homes. Not all kids were open to talking about it right away. “It’s delicate territory. You don’t want to upset anybody.” Some students gave her gift cards.

Lesley Van Dordrecht and her husband had minutes to flee their home in the pulverized Coffey Park neighborhood, which lost more than 1,000 houses overnight. She planned to bank her CTA disaster grant for rebuilding costs.

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After teaching 24 years at Mark West Elementary in the Mark West Union School District, she had lots of school memories in the house. “I had just taken home all my memories. It was a big box of photos from my whole career.”

Her first day back to school helped her heal. “The school is here for me. The teachers. Everybody is helping everybody. I just can’t wait to feel normal again.”

Second-grade teacher Lesley Van Dordrecht received inspirational notes from her former students who call her “Mrs. Van” at Mark West Elementary in Santa Rosa. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Van Dordrecht)
Second-grade teacher Lesley Van Dordrecht received inspirational notes from her former students who call her “Mrs. Van” at Mark West Elementary in Santa Rosa. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Van Dordrecht)

“The school is here for me. The teachers. Everybody is helping everybody. I just can’t wait to feel normal again.”

Lesley Van Dordrecht stands amid the ruins of her house in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Van Dordrecht)
Lesley Van Dordrecht stands amid the ruins of her house in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Van Dordrecht)

Kindergarten teacher Cati Day lost her dream house.

With its sweeping views of oak trees and green valleys on a hilltop above Santa Rosa, the 24-acre property was a dream come true for Doug and Cati Day, who both teach at San Miguel Elementary in the Mark West district.

Teacher Cati Day points to damage in her dream home in hills above Santa Rosa.
Teacher Cati Day points to damage in her dream home in hills above Santa Rosa.

Her family was never in danger, staying in their smaller second home in Santa Rosa by chance the night of the fires, but frantic calls from friends in the burning hills after midnight ended any hope for their custom-built house of 13 years.

Family china fragments amid ruins of home of teachers Doug and Cati Day.
Family china fragments amid ruins of home of teachers Doug and Cati Day

“It was the Christmas house, the Thanksgiving house, the staff party house,” she says. “The property is still incredibly beautiful and inviting. The house is gone. The buildings are gone, but the property is still in our hearts, and we’re going to rebuild.”

Teachers Doug and Cati Day vow to rebuild their dream home above Santa Rosa.
Teachers Doug and Cati Day vow to rebuild their dream home above Santa Rosa.

How to Help and Get Help

The North Bay October wildfires burned 245,000 acres and claimed 44 lives, with 23 fatalities occurring in Sonoma County. Some 100,000 people evacuated. Santa Rosa alone lost 3,000 homes. Entire neighborhoods were decimated. Many educators suffered losses. CTA has set up a comprehensive page with resources for those affected, and information on making donations to help. See cta.org/firesupport.

By mid-December, the CTA Disaster Relief Fund had provided more than 207 grants of up to $3,000 for impacted educators — at least $380,000 in relief — with some CTA locals providing more. The Santa Rosa Teachers Association continues its fundraising for educators in the Santa Rosa City Schools district, raising more than $35,000 so far on its YouCaring site, and pairing impacted teachers’ “wish lists” with donors online. The CTA Redwood Service Center Council’s fundraising site is taking donations until Dec. 31 and will provide cash help for teachers in the eight counties it represents, including fire-damaged Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

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Miller in her Piner High School class in Santa Rosa, post fire.

Video Interviews

See Zoe Miller describe the night she evacuated, Paul Drake talk about his donation center, and Will Lyon point out what’s left of a Santa Rosa neighborhood.


Retired Teacher Marjorie Schwartz Dies in Santa Rosa Firestorm

Marjorie Schwartz

Marjorie Schwartz, a retired compassionate teacher who enjoyed helping others and teaching English learners during her career, died in her Santa Rosa home during the fast-moving October Tubbs Fire that decimated her Coffey Park neighborhood. She was 68.

Born in New York state, Schwartz, who held at least two master’s degrees, was chosen by CTA to train other teachers in school districts around California on how to educate English learners in a program she took part in from about 1997 to 2003, recalled her friend of nearly 20 years and a former colleague in the program, Denise Stewart of Fremont. Stewart met her in the program.

“That was her love – working with people from diverse backgrounds, and she was great at it,” says Stewart, a retired San Jose Unified teacher.

Known to her friends as “Marnie”, her teaching career included stops in San Ramon, Walnut Creek, Geyserville, San Rafael and at the Lewis Adult School in Santa Rosa, where she was also very active in that city’s Congregation Shomrei Torah synagogue, Stewart says. She was also supportive of unions and progressive causes, she remembers.

“She was a source to talk to about what unions can do to help you if you’re struggling,” Stewart says. “I thought I was progressive until I met her. She was ultra-progressive.”

Her life was celebrated in obituaries published in the San Francisco Chronicle here and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat here.

“She was a natural in the classroom,” Stewart says. “She was always smiling. There was always a smile on her face.”

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