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Symbols of resilience

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Mia Brossard, 12, helped weld this manzanita sculpture located south of Lynn Newberry Park on the greenway during a summer school class at Talent Middle School. The sculptures were placed all around Phoenix and Talent to honor those who lost homes in the fire
Phoenix-Talent School District students who welded manzanita sculptures donate some of them to other fire-impacted school districts

When Phoenix-Talent Assistant Superintendent Tiffanie Lambert drove her students back home to Rogue Valley on Monday after a long day of volunteering up north, she noticed everyone was way more “chatty'' than they were when they left at 6:30 a.m. for their destination.

“Everything just felt a lot lighter,” Lambert said.

She admits the difference might have been because high school kids are notorious for wanting to sleep in. But that afternoon, they were returning home having done some good — delivering the last of the manzanita sculptures to McKenzie River Community School and Santiam Junior/Senior High School, which were also impacted by devastating wildfires in 2020, like those in the Phoenix-Talent district.

In the summer of 2021, Talent Middle School and Phoenix High School students welded manzanita sculptures in partnership with artist Rick Evans and the nonprofit Talent Maker City. The artwork, seen as a “symbol of resilience” for fire-impacted communities, was publicly unveiled in a ceremony last September.

Mia Brossard, a McLoughlin Middle School student who attended Talent Middle School when the Almeda fire broke out, took on the task of welding one of the manzanita sculptures – something she had never done before.

“It honestly felt really great knowing that these sculptures were going to represent the Phoenix-Talent community rising and growing from the Almeda fire,” Brossard said.

The sculptures were placed in each Phoenix-Talent school, plus a local fire department and the Bear Creek Greenway, according to Talent Maker City’s interim director, Alli French. But two outlying ones remained for months in Maker City’s facility at 304 E. Main Street.

The plan was always for Phoenix-Talent schools to deliver them to McKenzie River Community School and the junior/senior high school in Santiam Canyon. The three districts, incidentally, are all eligible under HB 4026 to receive grant funding to make up for funds lost from displaced students.

“Now, these two (sculptures) are in their permanent homes, which is really exciting,” French said. “They’re beautiful and they’re not going anywhere; those branches are going to be around for a very long time as that symbol of resilience.”

N. Lane Tompkins, the principal of McKenzie River Community School who is also the superintendent of the McKenzie School District, was thankful the Phoenix-Talent School District provided one of the sculptures and believes it could go inside the school’s football stadium once it is repaired from fire damage it sustained.

“That’s a symbol of our shared experiences and the rebirth of that facility for our community,” Tompkins said.

Right now, the sculpture is placed under a breezeway at McKenzie River Community School.

“It greets students and families as they come into the building everyday,” Tompkins said. “It’s been a pretty cool little addition.”

The McKenzie principal wanted to “tip my hat” to the Phoenix-Talent School District constituents who made the manzanita sculptures.

“That was a time when they were doing it over the summer and they were still kind of reeling and figuring out what’s next and they took the time to do something special for others,” Tompkins said. “That really says a lot about that community.”

Brossard spoke at an assembly upon delivering the sculpture to McKenzie River Community School.

“It felt really, really awesome to show our support for people who lost their homes (and) people who didn’t lose their homes, but were still largely impacted by the fire,” Brossard said in an interview. “Really, it means a lot to me. Even if I don’t know these students on a deep personal level, the one thing that connects us all together is that we were impacted by the fires.”

The Phoenix-Talent delegation also had lunch with the student body in the cafeteria, according to Lambert.

“Their students were talking to our students about how the landscape changed — there used to be trees that went down to the creek and now, it just looks like a road,” she said. “It was hard to leave because these students had formed this quick friendship.”

At the Santiam Canyon school in Mill City, the weather was rainy. Still, the Phoenix-Talent group was able to meet with school officials there.

“We had a great conversation before we had to head out,” Lambert said.

Angela Rasmussen, principal of Santiam Jr./Sr. High School, said at the time of the fire, the school’s old building had been torn down to make way for new ones. Those suffered smoke damage, which delayed their opening to give crews time to clean them.

School officials at Santiam Canyon haven’t figured out where to place the statue, she said, but that doesn’t mean the campus community does not appreciate what the Phoenix-Talent schools delegation did.

“Receiving the statue and talking about the time period of the fires and immediate days after the fire recovery brought back a rush of so many emotions,” Rasmussen wrote in an email. “It was a great reminder of how far we have come, yet we know there is so much still to do.”

In making the trip up north, Lambert wanted the McKenzie and Santiam Canyon schools to know “they’re not alone” and that, “even though we live far apart, we will always think of them and we admire them and we’re in this together.”

By visiting both schools, Brossard said she’ll always have great memories, “knowing that I got to make something that would symbolize the rising and the growing of the Phoenix-Talent community, the McKenzie River and Santiam communities.”

Lambert spoke in an interview about what she wanted her students to get out of the trip up north to deliver the sculptures. In her view, just as welding the sculptures was a form of “art therapy,” giving them to McKenzie and Santiam Canyon was an “act of service.”

“That’s also a way of healing, by serving others,” Lambert said. “I want our students to really be proud that not only did they make it through … but giving back to others and sharing that sense of healing and wellness is important. I hope they feel really good about it.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.