After ‘running for their lives’ students still need help after wildfires

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School officials say students will need support for many years to come after the wildfires in the Santiam Canyon.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The wildfire flames might be out in the Santiam Canyon, but for students who lost everything in the natural disaster, the crisis isn’t over. 

Angela Rasmussen is the principal of Santiam Canyon Junior/Senior High School where students from Mill City, Gates, Detroit, Idhana, and Marion Forks attend. All five of these towns were severely impacted by the fires. Gates and Detroit were practically destroyed. 

“I got to speak to a couple of kids who were in the fire zone in Detroit and just hearing their story of evacuating and having fire on both sides of their car as they were really running for their lives – that trauma that our students have experienced is incredible,” Rasmussen said. 

Due to the fire damage, and the closure on Highway 22, the Santiam Canyon School District didn’t resume distance learning until October. Rasmussen said the start of the school year was an exciting time, even through remote learning. However, she said about 80 of the 300 kids at her school had been displaced from their homes by the wildfires and for them, challenges started arising quickly. 

Santiam Canyon Junior/Senior High School Principal Angela Rasmussen packs school supplies for students. Photo courtesy UnitedHealthcare

“You hit November and… we still don’t have kids in housing. We have students who are charging their Chromebooks in restrooms so that they can get online every day, at parks. And so, there was kind of a slump,” Rasmussen said. 

She said her kids were scattered across the state. Some are staying in Southern Oregon, others on the coast, and a few in the Portland area. 

Thankfully, in November, the school received a massive $25,000 donation to help return a bit of normalcy to kids’ lives. 

When the fires first started, Rasmussen helped set up a GoFundMe for the kids who lost everything. The fund was meant to cover the cost of an item each student desired, rather than essential items they needed. Rasmussen said she decided to do this because she strongly believes in student choice and student voice and wanted kids to feel empowered at a time when so many felt helpless. 

The GoFundMe has since raised more than five times its initial goal of $1,300. With the unexpected addition of the $25,000 from UnitedHealthcare, Rasmussen said they’re now able to help people more than she ever imagined. 

“Now we’re talking about replacing furniture and shoes and big items like sporting equipment,” Rasmussen said. “We’re just happy and excited about what the community has offered so far and it just allows us to continue on with giving for our students.”

Photo of what remains at properties damaged by wildfire in the Santiam Canyon in the summer of 2020. Photo courtesy UnitedHealthcare

The principal is ecstatic that her students will be returning to in-person learning on Feb. 23, but knows that just because they’re back in the classroom doesn’t mean their hardships are over. 

She said the Santiam School District superintendent has reached out to districts in California that have also experienced massive wildfires in their communities. What the superintendent learned is that the rebuilding process won’t be over in 1-2 years. It will likely last 4-6 years. For that reason, Rasmussen is hoping to collect more donations to continue supporting her kids. She’d like to give another round of donations to students in the spring and again in the fall.  

When in-person classes do resume, Rasmussen said a bus will bring in displaced students living within a “reasonable range” from the school, areas like Salem and Lebanon. Students who are temporarily living farther away will still have the option to attend classes virtually via Google Hangouts.  

Rasmussen knows things still won’t be easy, but she also knows her students are incredibly resilient.  

“It’s incredible to think that I have students that literally ran for their lives during this fire,” she said. “I have kids that are living in Detroit that don’t have electricity or running water and they are still coming to school every single day and it’s impressive and it warms your heart and I’m so proud of our kids for overcoming so much.” 

You can donate to the GoFundMe to support students at Santiam Canyon Junior/Senior High School at the link here.

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