Sifting through piles of school supplies, Aleece Feldhaus found the calendar she needed for her classroom. It would go perfectly with the stand she bought for her first year of teaching.
That’s when it all rushed back, all at once.
The stand was gone. So was the alphabet line she had tacked up years ago, the mural she lovingly painted on her classroom wall, and every other artifact she used to inspire and educate her special education students. The Camp Fire had taken it all.
Watching footage of burning Paradise Elementary School, run in loops on the news, gave Feldhaus (English, ’10) recurring heartbreak. And with every day that passes, she remembers something else that she loved, that her students loved, that has been reduced to ashes.
On Saturday, Butte County teachers and Chico State students who aspire to become educators joined forces to give Feldhaus and others a fresh start on rebuilding their classrooms. As she selected new supplies at Hooker Oak Elementary, she found herself hopeful for one of the first times since the fire.
“It’s really emotional to me because it represents the routine, the routine we can all go back to,” Feldhaus said. “Everyone is so sweet and helpful and ready to give. What we want to do for our students is what people are doing for us.”
Alumni Monica Brown (Liberal Studies, ’03), a transitional kindergarten teacher at Hooker Oak, and Amy Niess (Liberal Studies, ’99), a fifth-grade teacher at Fairview Elementary in Orland, came up with the concept to Color a Classroom with Love two weeks ago. They imagined a supply drive to restock essentials and other enriching items Paradise teachers lost in the fire to ensure they have at least some tools to support their thousands of displaced students when school resumed this Monday.
“It takes years to build a classroom into essentially a second home,” Niess said. “I thought something has to help them. They are going to come in with nothing, and they have lost so much. Let’s take one worry away.”
She and Brown put the request on social media, looking for donations of supplies and funds to get new classrooms off the ground. The first flyer was shared more than 1,000 times. The second flyer, with a link to an Amazon Wish List, was shared more than 7,000 times.
Within days, donations began pouring in to Hooker Oak School, each delivery between 20 and 100 boxes, multiple times a day. Their origins were from across the country—including Ohio, New York, Nebraska, and Maine—as well as gifts from Italy, England, and Bermuda.
By Saturday, the Hooker Oak gymnasium was bursting with crayons and glue sticks, notebooks and dictionaries, new backpacks and child-size chairs. A stream of teachers led into the school’s double doors, each patiently waiting for a tag on which to write their name and grade level. Hugs and tears repeated themselves in cycles.
“We’ve seen a lot of crying,” Brown said, noting she witnessed expressions of joy to be reunited, and also sadness with every realization of something else taken by the flames.
Teachers with a few years or decades of experience lost items ranging from stuffed animals that young students practice reading out loud with to carpets colored with a map of the United States. Also gone are simple, critical supplies like glue, colored pencils, and tactile shapes that they purchased themselves to augment lessons despite diminished state funding.
“I had one of those! Can we have that?” Feldhaus exclaimed, as one of her teaching assistants pulled a number line from a stack. She grinned as she also spotted notebooks that matched those she used to have, textbook-sized whiteboards, and folders for students’ reading lessons.
Aiding teachers in their shopping sprees were 25 aspiring educators from Chico State’s School of Education, all wearing Wildcats Rise T-shirts.
Junior Liz Arevalo, who is majoring in liberal studies and aspires to teach kindergarten one day, checked people in and told them what to expect and where to find items for their grade level. She served as a personal shopper for a few, helping navigate the overwhelming outpouring of generosity aisle by aisle.
“There were tears and a lot of smiles, which I think is really important right now,” she said. “We can all use a smile.”
Knowing she will eventually have her own classroom and thinking of all the care her teachers poured into their spaces over the years, fostering her own passion for education, Arevalo was driven to give back.
“This is my community. I grew up in Chico. I live on the Skyway and I saw all those [evacuees] coming down,” she said. “It hurts. You are used to fires in California but it’s here. This is our home.”
Keaton Kirkpatrick restocked tables, and whenever he saw someone struggling, he asked how he could help, whether it was searching out a certain item or filling backpacks for students who also had lost all their supplies. A graduate student pursuing his master’s in English and aspiring to become a professor, he said it doesn’t matter what you teach—educators all share a common thread.
“I can’t begin to imagine the loss,” he said. “I can’t imagine losing [your classroom] on top of so much more. To help someone through [something] that unimaginable is all we want to do.”
Cries of “Good luck!” and “One day at a time!” bid the teachers goodbye as they pulled away from the school curb, their cars stuffed solid with scissors and erasers, flashcards and foam numbers, board games and backpacks. Plans are in the works to create an Adopt a Classroom program to continue giving these teachers and their students what they need to have a rich educational environment. Details will be posted on their Facebook page.
“We want to continue giving support, not just next week but into next year,” Niess said. “We want these kids to have a sense of normalcy again. Our thoughts are always on how we can help our students.”