Story Corps

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Clinical social worker Laura Besser points to a mural outside the administration office at the new Paradise Elementary School. The students were relocated to this campus, which used to be the middle school, after their elementary school burned down in the Camp Fire. In the center of the mural is the school mascot, the tiger, colored-in with neon shades. Around the tiger, students have drawn pine trees and stars. They’ve also written down lists of what they lost in the Camp Fire. One paragraph reads, “ I miss my lizard, my big fat cat, my home”

“I never imagined that in one day, my whole caseload would have such severe trauma due to a natural disaster,” Besser said.

Besser has been counseling students in the Paradise Unified School District for about ten years. She works for a non-profit called Youth for Change, which sends counselors into schools to help students in need. She says her job has changed dramatically since the fire.

“Before we were working with kids that had depression or generalized anxiety, and a few might have trauma or complex trauma. But after the Camp Fire, the majority of my caseload had trauma, intense complex trauma,” she said. 

For Besser, the changes in the students are obvious, especially in relation to somatic symptoms ⁠— emotional strains that are reflected in the body.

“Kid’s that I was seeing before who didn’t have behavioral issues or somatic issues, all of a sudden they have it,” she said. “Like intense tummy aches, they are wetting the bed, they are having nightmares, and so it really intensified my work.” 

Health Care providers use the term Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES to describe traumatic events. Research shows that the greater the number of adverse experiences one has during childhood, the more likely they are to experience health problems later in life.

Before the Camp Fire, Butte County residents experienced more traumatic childhood events on average than residents of any other county in the state. That’s according to a report by the San Francisco based non-profit, the Center for Youth Wellness. According to the organization, 76 percent of Butte County residents reported having more than one adverse childhood experience. High rates of poverty may account for these numbers. Mandy Kling, also a clinical social worker with Youth for Change, has noticed instability and poverty have made it harder for kids to recover from the Camp Fire.  

"In working with kids that are still living in trailers since the fire, it's like a perpetual state of crisis, she said. “They haven’t been able to get out of crisis mode and get a sense of safety and stability, and in doing so they tend to be more escalated and tend to be more hyper-vigilant. The behaviors have still maintained, I haven’t seen a reduction in behaviors without that stability. “

Kling grew up in Paradise, the Camp Fire destroyed the home where she was raised. She believes that if the community had more resources and support before the fire, things could have been easier. 

“Prior to the fire, it is my perspective that it was under-resourced and there was a higher need for therapeutic services that wasn’t met,” she said.  “Following the fires, there was a lot of chaos and everybody was traumatized. The people who are trying to pick up the pieces have gone through hell and back.”

Kling hopes that other communities will learn from what Paradise has been through and build the support networks they need before a disaster happens. 

Fire Recovery & Youth Health

September 17, 2019

Trauma Threatens To Impact School Attendance In Paradise

Driving to Paradise, you will pass a memorial for the more than 80 people who died in the Camp Fire. The crosses sit on a small knoll off Skyway, the four-lane road between Paradise and Chico. Almost everyone in town used this road to evacuate last November. The students in Paradise Unified School…
September 14, 2019

Educators Use Poetry to Help Kids Talk About Trauma

Kids at Schaefer Elementary write their poems. Credit: Margo Perin. Third-grade teacher, Tracy Henry, points to an American flag hanging in her classroom at Schaefer Elementary. The flag is melted along the edges, it shows just how hot the classroom got when the Tubbs fire swept through Santa Rosa…
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September 13, 2019

Fire Recovery & Youth Health

The California Army National Guard clears debris in Paradise, California. Credit: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)On the night of October 8, 2017, the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires swept through Northern California, destroying more than three thousand homes, leveling…
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September 03, 2019

Housing Insecurity Is Taking a Toll on Youth’s Health

Miranda Hernandez and her mom, Adelina, stand inside their new home. Credit: Adia White. Standing in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, you can see the scar of the Tubbs fire stretch across the hillside. Two years later, the trees are still charred and the sounds of reconstruction are constant. Among…
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August 23, 2019

October 2017 Wildfires Are Affecting Crucial Health Programs

Image: Ashley Vejar and son Angel. Photo courtesy of the subject. Kemberly Mahiri shows me one of the hundreds of thank you cards she and other counselors for Sonoma County's Teen Parent Program have received. “It just chokes me up every single time,” Mahiri tells me. The program currently has a…
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