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Fire Destroys Santa Rosa School for Students With Autism

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Andrew Bailey, CEO of Anova, holds a cellphone with a photo of the school, destroyed by the Tubbs Fire. (Devin Katayama/KQED )

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A school in Santa Rosa that serves about 125 students with autism has been destroyed by the Tubbs Fire.

The entryway to the Anova school -- which is inside the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts -- is burnt almost beyond recognition in photos.

Some staff members have lost homes, said Andrew Bailey, founder and CEO of Anova, but as of Tuesday morning there hadn't been any reports of injuries from staff or families with students attending the school.


"Our number one priority is making sure that our community of kids and family members and employees are safe," he said.

Kids' Emotional Needs

The Anova community is still in the assessment phase, but there’s something else on Bailey's mind: The emotional needs of his students. Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts a person's ability to communicate and interact. Big changes -- like a disaster -- can be hard for people with autism to deal with.

"We have students who experience anxiety and depression occasionally, sometimes fairly regularly, even without a fire event such as this," said Bailey. "So those types of students will have a real problem with losing their school."

Santa Rosa School Serving Students With Autism Destroyed

Santa Rosa School Serving Students With Autism Destroyed

Bailey is organizing a meeting with families and staff to go over how to support the kids during these times. For example, having a favorite stuffed animal or an iPad around as a distraction can be helpful, he said.

Then there’s the question of how to talk to the students about what’s happening in a way that's appropriate.

"[We] make sure we keep this simple and not explain a whole lot to these kids other than, 'This is a dangerous situation but life is full of danger and your family is here,' " said Bailey.

He also plans on providing small pieces of information about the future and where Anova might be holding classes. His approach is about respecting the students' routines, which are important to maintain for those on the autism spectrum.

Thankfully, Anova has strong community support, said Bailey. The nonprofit school serves more than 200 students from around the Bay Area at two locations -- Santa Rosa and Concord.

Bailey's current job is to look for a new temporary location for the school. Local school districts have reached out to lend them space while they figure out how to rebuild, he said.

"We are strong people and we will survive this fire," said Bailey.

Helping the Vulnerable During Disasters

But what about all the other fire-affected people with developmental challenges who lack a strong support network?

That's a question Richard Ruge thinks about a lot. He leads a group in Sonoma County called Disaster Preparedness for Vulnerable Populations, which helps educate people -- especially the disabled or elderly -- about the importance of preparing themselves for disasters, like keeping shoes, gloves and flashlights near the bed. Building a community network of neighbors is also a good idea, according to Ruge.

Ruge has worked for many years with people with disabilities, and awhile back he realized nobody was helping the disability community think about how to prepare for disasters.

"Some people are on dialysis, some people have oxygen tanks and things like that," Ruge said. "So they really need to work with their neighbors and let everyone know what needs to happen if a disaster were to strike."

The county has asked Ruge to prepare a list of groups serving vulnerable people so they can help out during evacuations.

But there's no system in place to keep track of people with special needs during an emergency, and Ruge is concerned that many of the hundreds of people who are still unaccounted for could be these vulnerable people he’s tried to serve.

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