Responding to Waldo fire, Coronado, Holmes try to make schools welcome places for victimized students, staff

       Between them, Coronado High School and Holmes Middle School have 51 students who were displaced by the Waldo Canyon Fire. Four Holmes staffers suffered the same fate.
       The schools' principals - David Engstrom at Coronado and Rob Utter at Holmes - don't take such statistics lightly. The attendance areas for both schools include the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, which lost 346 homes in all on the fire's worst day, June 26.

Holmes Middle School, 20 of whose students were displaced by the Waldo Canyon Fire this summer, held a barbecue before school Aug. 9 to honor emergency responders and build camaraderie among staff and students. Above, Station 5 firefighters (dark uniforms, from left) Becka Wisham, John Messersmith, Marvin Adams and Rich Renz sit on either side of Eleanor and her father Vic Malone, whose home was lost in the fire.
Westside Pioneer photo

       With the school year starting Monday, Aug. 20, both schools' leaders are taking steps to ensure their fire victims have the help they need to do well in school… and to keep their morale up.
       Coronado began meeting with the affected families in July. Engstrom admitted that in all the hubbub and with other agencies helping out, at first “We didn't know quite what to do because we're a high school.” But gradually, the physical needs at least became clear. Consistent with many of the families was the extensive loss of personal items. For the students, these included such school memorabilia as yearbooks, photos and awards. So the schools are working to replace as much of that as possible. There were also issues for the coming school year, with materials and equipment gone. This was where citizens have stepped forward, both principals reported.
       “There has been an outpouring of people wanting to give in any way they can,” Utter said. “We've gotten clothing, furniture, such a broad variety of offerings.”
       Most of the donations have come in quietly and anonymously. Engstrom identified one provider, a small Westside business, Colorado Technology Consultants, as particularly generous. He said he told owner Julie Yack that the school needed 25 calculators (at a cost of $100) each to replace ones that students had lost in the fire. “She did not bat an eye,” Engstrom said, still amazed. “I said, 'You can't order all these,' and she said, 'I will. My heart is breaking.' ”
       Given the lead by Engstrom, Coronado's student government leaders have also stepped up, organized two fundraising efforts this summer - an ice cream social a few weeks ago (attended by more than 200 people) and the creation of a Tshirt to be sold (with “Cougar Nation Doesn't Burn” across the front).
       Student government also plans a concert Friday, Aug. 17 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the school courtyard featuring performances by recent alumni Nick Pauley and Kellye Rather. The public is welcome, and all donations will go to a school fire relief fund set up under “Cougar Cares,” a long-time school charity for needy students.
       On Aug. 9, Holmes invited its school families, along with the Westside's Fire Station 5, to a barbecue at the school. During the event, four members of Station 5 wound up sitting with Vic Malone and his daughter Eleanor. The Malones' house in Mountain Shadows burned to the ground June 26. Malone, who is rebuilding, sought to downplay the disaster. “It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “And it would have been if these guys [the firefighters] hadn't done the things they did.”
       Physical needs can be challenging, but it's the emotional needs that have the school leaders especially concerned. Even people whose homes weren't lost can suffer a kind of trauma, Utter noted, possibly feeling guilty at emerging unscathed when others did not or having to deal with a neighborhood that is no longer what it was.
       The concern, as expressed by both principals, is the deep impact that such an event can have. “This is the type of trauma that will be with them for years, if not a lifetime,” Utter said. “With other things, you might say, 'That was months ago, get over it,' but you can't say that about this.”
       Both schools have been getting training in how to work with people dealing with loss and grief. Even with that, Utter pointed out that each individual case will be different. “It's going to be case by case,” he said. “We've thought of many things, but we're probably going to be surprised. It's a learning experience for all of us, but everyone I think is preparing to approach things with an open mind and a solution mindset.”
       Both Engstrom and Utter praised District 11 for being involved early on, trying to make sure no affected families are missed, seeking assistance through federal homeless legislation, offering transportation help and enlisting service providers where needed.
       During the first week of school, D-11 will bring in Aspenpointe, a local nonprofit specializing in mental health and behavioral issues, to give assistance where needed.
       In the end, though, Engstrom believes the greatest service the educational system can provide is a “predictable schedule” for students, saying the routine itself aids healing. “It's not going to be easy, but it will help them get through the school year,” he said.

Westside Pioneer article