'I Don’t Have Any Books': Students Who Lost Homes to Fires Wrestle With New Reality
Abril Barbosa (left), Jennifer Cabrera and Maria Mendoza gather after classes at Santa Rosa Junior College on Oct. 25, 2017. The school was closed for two weeks after the wildfires began. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
On a recent sunny afternoon, life on campus seemed back to normal at Santa Rosa Junior College, which is now open after closing for two weeks because of the massive North Bay wildfires. Some students rushed to classes while others lingered beneath tall oak trees outside the main library. The air was clear again and free of any smoke.
The community college, with more than 27,000 students, was not physically damaged by the Tubbs Fire, which leveled entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa. But more than 600 students, and dozens of faculty and staff, lost their homes.
While displaced students welcomed returning to school as a step toward greater stability in their lives, they said they are coming to grips with new housing, transportation, economic and other challenges.
“I almost didn’t come back to school because I don't have any books. I don’t have any notes. I don’t have any pens or anything,” said 18-year-old Seamus Reed, whose house was one of many destroyed Oct. 9 in the nearby Coffey Park neighborhood.
"The first couple of weeks you felt sadness, anger, frustration. And after a while that begins to pass," said Reed, adding that he gained a sense of "closure" when he returned to see his home's remains -- a mailbox. "At this point in the process, I don't feel awful anymore."
Now, Reed and his parents are staying with friends in Occidental, a town about 15 miles away. Reed, who doesn’t own a car, said his commute time to school has increased significantly. He didn't know if he'd be able to continue his job as scheduled at a Trader Joe's.
“For work, I barely have a way to get there,” Reed said.
Santa Rosa Junior College is trying to help students like Reed by raising funds and giving them $500 each for immediate needs. A campus support center offers impacted students counseling, loaner laptops and free textbooks, among other services.
"A lot of students want to return to school and just don’t know how because they have lost everything. Their homes, their cars, their homework," said Hillary Zarate, a supervisor of the college's fire relief effort. "They don’t know where to start, where to focus."
At least 180 students have dropped out since the college reopened, and that number is expected to increase, said Pedro Avila, vice president of student services. He worries the most for low-income students and others who might not have as much family support, like first-generation college students.
"That's a population that I personally I'm always concerned about," said Avila, who used to manage enrollment and admissions at the community college district in Fresno. "It's more difficult because they don't have anyone in their household they can turn to and say, 'Hey, how do we do this?' or 'How do I fill this form?' Little things like that."
Lupe Duran is the first in his family to go to college. He worries his family won't be able to find an affordable place to live nearby, as the fires wiped out thousands of homes in the area, which already faced a tight housing market.
"Without a stable rock, without a home, how can you expect to have stability in your life?" said Duran, 23, who has been sleeping on a couch with relatives. "If I move from Santa Rosa, I don't know if I'll be able to continue to go to this college."
The fire also destroyed the tools for his landscaping business, which helps pay for school. That was a significant economic hit, he said.
While Duran is thankful for the support he's received from the college and other students, he said it's hard to focus during class. He misses his dog of eight years, a boxer, who was trapped inside his house when the flames came. Duran had been away from home and wasn't able to get there in time to retrieve her.
"The main thing that I just can't get out of my mind is the loss of my dog, Bella. That's the only thing I would have grabbed from the house if I could have," he said.
Duran said in spite of the devastation he's witnessed and felt, he is inspired by the firefighters who came to his town to beat back the flames. That has made him rethink what he wants to study in school.
"Now I'm thinking more fire protection, taking fire courses," Duran said. "I'd be providing a service for my community."