Community Support Drives Camp Fire Survivor and Anthropology Major to Give Back
Streaking ribbons of color wrap the woman’s face as her chin tilts slightly toward the sky, her mouth barely open, perhaps in shock or awe. The self-portrait’s title: While the World Burns.
In the painting version of her striking blue eyes, Kate Minderhoud sees strength and determination, traits that pushed her to not give up on her college dream in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, or when the financial hurdles of her education seemed too daunting.
“Lots of people, when you tell them you have struggled, tell you they are sorry, but that doesn’t help you get better,” she said. “Here, the culture is ‘We are going to accommodate you, but we also want to push you to achieve great things and to push yourself.”
Push she did.
This spring, Minderhoud graduated from Chico State with her bachelor’s degree in anthropology with cum laude honors, a designation reserved for the top 5 percent in the class.
“I didn’t think I was excited until I walked the stage and realized ‘It’s done. I did it. I have a degree,’” she said. “It was a culmination of all the things I have fought my way through.”
Minderhoud is now enrolled in a master’s program in anthropology at Chico State, where she’s eager to use anthropological theory to break through cultural norms. For her thesis, she plans to focus on public art as a means for community education and healing from loss, a subject she knows all too well.
A near-lifelong resident of Paradise, she was recovering from recent surgery and adjusting to her parents’ impending divorce when her high school closed amid the approaching flames of the Camp Fire on the morning of November 8, 2018. She fled home to pick up her 15-year-old brother and the family pets before undertaking a normally 20-minute drive that took more than three hours to reach Chico and reunite with their parents.
While their home was thankfully spared in the devastating blaze, it remained uninhabitable for months and the town she had known all her life had been reduced largely to rubble. She moved with her dad and brother to Los Molinos and commuted to Chico to finish her senior year in makeshift classrooms at the Chico airport.
Completing her college applications is not in her memory bank but she does remember the fear of how she would possibly pay for college. When a call came in late spring 2019 that Minderhoud was a recipient of the President’s Scholarship at Chico State, which pays $5,000 a year for four years, she felt immense relief and her anxiety turned to excitement.
“I love Chico. It was always going to be Chico,” she said. “I love the campus, and the anthropology program is world-renowned so I knew I wanted to be surrounded by the faculty.”
She moved into the residence halls and soon became a resident advisor, guiding mostly international students. As someone who knew what it was like to be away from home, she loved the chance to provide mentorship and community.
Midway through her first semester, she opened her inbox to read an unexpected email—she had been awarded Chico State’s Paradise Merit Scholarship. Reserved for six outstanding students who lived in Paradise and experienced losses due to the Camp Fire, the scholarship was created by an anonymous couple who simply wanted to help them move forward. It provides each recipient $5,000 a year for four years.
“I called my mom immediately and said ‘You will never believe it,” she said. “I was still stressed about money. That fire scholarship met my housing need and the remaining tuition that I didn’t have. To receive that money was life-changing for me.”
Between her two scholarships and working as an RA, Minderhoud was able to graduate owing less than $1,000, setting her up for future success. However, that second scholarship meant far more to her than the financial assistance.
“We had received a lot of support already,” she said. “It was the sentiment behind it. I was so grateful for the community support—anytime you told someone you were from Paradise, it was an immediate ‘What can we do for you?’”
She wants to extend that feeling of support and belonging to others through her work as a student representative on the University Foundation Board and secretary of the Student Philanthropy Council.
“If you give me a cause, I will fight for it and throw my whole being into it,” she said. “I was treated so well during my college experience, and I want that for others”
Now back living in Paradise, the visceral memories of falling ash or the explosions of propane tanks pop up from time to time. Loud sounds or sirens make her jump to this day. She grieves the normalcy of the community she once knew but has found strength and support in one just down the road, surrounded by her peers and faculty who have set big sights for her next steps.
Minderhoud ultimately aspires to teach, perhaps at the community college level or a four-year university if she pursues a PhD. She wants a career that will help people, she said, and somehow to incorporate her art.
Painting has become a mental outlet, even more so in the wake of the Camp Fire. One of her favorite pastimes is streaking color across canvas with her hands, feeling her fingers in the paint and the visceral sensation of scratching through the layers for texture and depth.
While the World Burns is on display today at the Paradise Art Show at the Masonic Lodge, as part of the fire’s five-year anniversary commemoration. The second piece she submitted is from a class at Chico State, when students were assigned to create an image of the most traumatic time in their life. A dark sky with ribbons of red along the horizon transports her back to sitting in gridlock as they escaped Paradise that day but continues to remind her that “failure is not an option.”
“I came out of the fire wanting to control everything around me, knowing I never would be able to. I’ll carry that for the rest of my life,” she said. “There are things you can’t control, but I will be all right. And I know there are people to help along the way. That’s how I feel at Chico, and I am exactly where I need to be.”