Guest Writer: Steve Mizera, Assistant Superintendent for Santa Rosa City Schools in California
Like so many school districts around the country, it’s back-to-school time here in Santa Rosa, Calif. I look forward to this week every year, the excited buzz of students filling the halls and classrooms and the celebration of a new school year. But this year is a little different. With more than 800 families in our district displaced as a result of last October’s wildfires, we just won’t know until those school doors open how many students will be back this year. Many families spent the summer evaluating if they will stay in Santa Rosa and rebuild, or move. Those are decisions that will have a long-term impact on our community.
Last year’s wildfires were devastating for our area. As one of the most destructive wildfires in state history, they destroyed at least 8,400 homes and buildings and killed 22 people. In our district, about 800 students and 90 staff members lost their homes. The fires also destroyed one of our elementary schools and a high school farm.
When faced with unimaginable tragedy, this community came together, and we truly felt the support that came in from around the world. Comcast NBCUniversal, with over 500 employees in the local area, was intimately aware of the devastation and jumped in to help.
After the fires, together we decided to build a support center that didn’t then exist in our community, We envisioned a center that could provide crisis counseling, academic support and school nurse services, as well as a be place for children to go after the school day ends, and during summer and holidays.
On Comcast Cares Day in April, over 500 volunteers broke ground on the new Santa Rosa Integrated Wellness Center. These essential services can make a real difference for families in our area, even those beyond our district boundaries. It will take years to rebuild homes, and likely years to recover from the traumatic impact on our community. Children feel that impact and require extra care.
We had a soft opening of the new Integrated Wellness Center in June and have been serving families throughout the summer. One family, like many, was forced out of their rental home when their landlords needed to move in after losing their own home in the fire. Besides the trauma of losing their home, the family’s daughter, then in fifth grade, and son, in third grade also lost their elementary school, which was damaged in the fire. The center was able to provide much-needed counseling for the children and their mother, as well as other services. For example, the center’s family engagement facilitator showed their mother how to get online access to her children’s grades and attendance, so she now feels more connected as the school year begins.
More than eight months after our tragedy, Northern California is once again battling wildfires, including the largest fire in our state’s history in Mendocino County, just north of Santa Rosa. School districts are reaching out to us to navigate how best to support their families. Once the victim, we are now honored to be a part of their support system.
Steve Mizera is Assistant Superintendent for Santa Rosa City Schools in California.