Counselors Needed: Schools Struggle With New Wave of Trauma 6 Months After Camp Fire

2 min
Painted stars hang on the fencing that surrounds what used to be Paradise Elementary School, burned down by the Camp Fire. (Michelle Wiley/KQED)

The trauma specialists working in Butte County schools knew they'd start seeing kids act out around six months after the deadly Camp Fire, since anniversaries are known to trigger survivors into reliving moments of the traumatic event.

But there aren't enough counselors to help all of the students, teachers and staff dealing with this second wave of trauma.

“We have six schools that have requested help, and we can't bring help to them,” said Roy Applegate, who helps coordinate Recovery Trauma Services for the Butte County Office of Education. “It’s a little bit like rain in the desert in the summer: As soon as it hits the ground, it disappears. We can give our counselors as many hours as they need, and they're full up all the time. They're working to the max.”

Just like during the fire itself, different people are dealing with different levels of trauma.

"It depends on whether or not they've secured some basic levels of need: housing, food, routine access to resources," said Dena Kapsalis, director of student services for the Paradise Unified School District.

But regardless of their situation, all families may notice their kids exhibiting unusual behavior.

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"We're seeing lots and lots of manifestations of trauma," Kapsalis said. "A lot of acting out, tiredness, inability to focus, shutting down, being unable to maintain relationships with adults or peers.”

While it may be distressing for parents to see their kids struggling, Kapsalis says counselors try to instead view this acting out as a form of communication.

“The gift of being with kids is that they don't second-guess themselves typically. So we're afforded the ability to have more transparent responses and communication from them,” Kapsalis said. “So they're communicating loss, they're communicating a need for help, a need for support.”

Workers with a backhoe remove debris from the burned down Paradise Elementary.
Workers use a backhoe to remove debris from the burned-down Paradise Elementary. (Michelle Wiley/KQED)

But for their teachers — many of whom were also impacted by the fire that erupted on Nov. 8 — it’s much more difficult for support staff to determine how they’re doing.

“With adults it's much harder because they have all kinds of systems of coping that often disguise what's really going on with them,” Kapsalis said.

To better support their teachers, counselors have started setting up shop in common areas — including staff rooms, hallways and even near copiers — to encourage conversation and help connect them with services.

To fill the need for more counselors, the Butte County Office of Education has called several of their workers out of retirement to help out.

"When I got the phone call, I said, 'Oh no, I really don't want to go back to work,' and they said, 'No, we really need you,' " said Pamela Beeman, who'd been retired for nearly five years when she got the call. "You can't just say no to that."

Beeman is currently working as a fire recovery counselor at Spring Valley School, but she doesn't know how long she can continue.

"We're just getting started," Beeman said. "This is a long road, and some of the worst symptoms for survivors are starting to emerge. It's really easy to lose heart."

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