Coping together

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Isabella Mitchell reunited with her biology teacher, Ambrosia Krinsky, at the Paradise High School Resource Center at the Chico Mall.

Isabella Mitchell was on the phone with her father, who was at work in Redding, as flames rapidly approached the SaveMart parking lot where she and a few hundred others had gathered in Paradise.

“I told him that I didn’t think we were going to make it out,” she told the CN&R last week, her voice breaking. “I kind of said my last goodbye to him, and I said I loved him, and then the AT&T cell towers stopped working.”

Mitchell had woken up on the morning of Nov. 8 and got ready for school just like any other day. Except that morning, she never made it to Paradise High. She escaped with her mother, brother and four dogs. They wouldn’t be reunited with her father until 6 p.m., when they made it to Chico.

“I ran up and hugged him because I didn’t think I was ever going to see him again,” Mitchell said. “He was crying, I was crying, my mom was crying, and we were all just hugging.”

Like Mitchell, thousands of children fled from the Camp Fire that morning under traumatic circumstances.

Since then, Mitchell says she’s had nightmares in which she had to leave her dogs behind.

“I kept going back to we almost couldn’t get out. I kept thinking of when we were driving through the flames. I kept wanting to think, ‘Oh, I’m just going to wake up.’”

Recognizing the intensity of loss and trauma endured by students and staff, Paradise Unified School District has worked with the Butte County Office of Education to provide mental health crisis services for its students.

BCOE spokesman Neil Meyer told the CN&R via email that, prior to classes resuming on Dec. 3, the immediate focus was to bring in local and national trauma response experts to train staff not just from Paradise but also across its 14 districts and 18 charters (where many displaced students have now enrolled). Another effort was to assign counselors to the schools most heavily impacted.

One such expert is developmental-behavioral pediatrician Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the University of Southern California Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. He has provided consulting for a number of tragedies and disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Secondary stressors and losses often follow disasters, Schonfeld explained, and many people will uncover pre-existing trauma or loss.

When a large percentage of the population relocates, even temporarily, “you lose all these things that are important to you, and that may be what is actually upsetting.” Parents can become stressed over finances or job loss following a disaster, as well, prompting marital conflict and even an increase in substance use and domestic violence.

Among California’s 58 counties, Butte has the highest prevalence of adverse childhood experiences—such as abuse or witnessing domestic violence—which places children here at a higher risk of developing an overactive, or toxic, stress response, according to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness. This can lead to changes in their brain development, immune and hormonal systems and DNA, putting them at risk for serious illnesses later in life, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental illness.

Reducing sources of stress or trauma includes treatment such as an emphasis on sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health and healthy relationships, Harris said. Doctors may prescribe medication when necessary.

Teachers will “want school to be a source of support,” Schonfeld added, and “meet kids where they are at in terms of their learning potential and move them forward at the pace they are comfortable.”

School psychologist Carly Ingersoll said that BCOE has gathered a roster of volunteer mental health professionals who are ready to help students and staff process and heal.

Last week, there were six mental health counselors, one from as far as Marin County, plus five academic counselors, working just between the high school and Paradise Intermediate School resource centers at the Chico Mall.

They, along with the teachers, have been focusing on listening to their students when they want to talk about what they went through, and creating a safe, stress-free space, Ingersoll said.

“Consistency is huge,” she said. It can be as simple as being able to regularly see friends and teachers again—she has witnessed some students wanting to share what happened to them and process, but most just expressing a strong desire to be together.

Last week, 11th-grader Kelly Wang was relieved to be able to work with her math teacher at the resource center. Located across from the food court, the center was a hub of activity. Wang shared a round table with her classmates, typing away on their refurbished chromebooks, occasionally checking in with teachers and chatting with one another.

When the fire broke out, Wang had to leave her grandfather behind. He was determined to save their home on Neal Road as the flames approached, armed with a backyard hose. She recalled pleading with him, “We need you. We don’t want to lose you.”

For two days, she had no idea what happened to her grandfather. Police discovered him, with burned hands and smoke inhalation injuries, at their still-standing home. “My grandpa was very lucky,” Wang said. “It’s very, ‘Thank God.’ It’s a miracle.”

Teacher Ambrosia Krinsky and her colleagues spoke highly of their students, whom they called resilient and brave. She’s been checking in with them periodically. One asked her if it is OK to feel happy.

“I said, ‘Absolutely. Everything you’re feeling is normal … your brain is trying to make sense of this disaster.’”

A more permanent school location will open in January at 1000 Fortress St., near the Chico Municipal Airport (the site of a former Facebook operations center), with capacity for 700 students. That’s when psychologists will start looking out for delayed trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, Ingersoll said.

In the meantime, teachers and mental health professionals have been reinforcing that “they’re safe, we’re going to rebuild and we’re going to have a school again.”