Teachers from Children’s Community Charter School in the fire-ravaged town of Paradise wanted to help their students maintain some sense of normalcy and routine, in addition to continuing their lessons.
So Annie Finney, second grade teacher and president of the Children’s Community Charter School Teachers Association, along with fellow teachers and CCCSTA members Sheri Eichar and Brittany Bentz decided to organize a “school day” on Nov. 16 for about 25 first- to third-grade students in a public library in nearby Chico.
The children’s section of the library buzzed with laughter and excited conversation—the sounds of school—and hugs and smiles greeted every student who arrived.
“You came to school!” Finney said, greeting third-grade student C.J. Ryder. “Thank you for coming here today. We are blessed to be together again!”
Jamie Ryder, C.J.’s mom, said that getting together for class meant a lot to her son and his classmates, who were chased from their normal lives when the devastating Camp Fire burned nearly all of Paradise to the ground. Eichar estimates that 90 percent of the students lost their homes as well as their school, which was destroyed by the fire.
“It’s awesome for these kids to get back a little bit of what they had,” Ryder said. “We’ve had so much support.”
Eichar has already been teaching class to 10 of her students in her kitchen. The day after the the students were chased from their homes, she used Facebook to talk about a book they had been reading just a day earlier, before the skies filled with smoke and lives changed forever. She, Finney and Bentz have been in contact over Facebook with all of their students, and organized relief supplies for their families.
Just before “class time,” a donor from Oregon delivered a truck full of suitcases to Eichar, which she distributed to families in need. For those who literally escaped with the clothes they were wearing, this luggage meant no longer carrying their few items in plastic garbage bags and the familiar feeling of having a place for their things.
“I can’t believe I’m crying about a suitcase, but it means so much,” said Ryder, choking back tears.
When the students settled in for story time with their teachers, for a moment it was almost like nothing had changed. Finney read a story of Thanksgiving, with Eichar and Bentz nestled among their seated students. Nearly 10 hands rose as Finney posed a question to her quiet audience—a scene that could’ve come from a classroom anywhere.
As the students scattered off to small tables to work on an assignment about people they were thankful for, Eichar scanned the crowd and pointed out many parents who had helped fight the fire and evacuate people—some of them already social media famous for their heroism in the face of the raging inferno. A student named Kennedy Pierce wrote about how she was thankful for her father who helped evacuate people from the hospital.
“There are a lot of capes in this room,” said Eichar, who said she knew how meaningful it would be to get back together—for everybody. “We’re teachers. We teach. The kids are the priority right now. This has been so isolating. I thought ‘they need to be together.'”
The biggest rewards were the sights and sounds of youth and life in that small library, a respite from the dreary haze of destruction that blanketed the outside world. Excited chatter from tables throughout the room; the laughter of children who haven’t had a lot to laugh about lately; and the smiles of students who are ready to just be kids again.
“How long will you be here?” asked a parent, who wanted to run to the local post office.
“As long as you need me to be,” replied Finney. “I’ll be here with them. We’re going to have a little bit of school.”
Click here for ways to help those who suffered losses in Paradise and other areas.
Photos by Julian Peeples