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Phoenix-Talent relief fund for school families distributes $1.2 million

Some cried, others were overwhelmed. After having lost so much to the Almeda fire, families in the Phoenix-Talent School District haven’t had much to be thankful for in the months following the blaze, so their reactions to the district’s news that financial help was ready and waiting for them were a mixture of surprise and relief.

By the time all the checks are handed out, the district will have distributed about $1.6 million in relief aid directly to those in the two communities.

“Hearing from the families, hearing their stories, has been really powerful in terms of connecting,” district Assistant Superintendent Javier del Rio said, “and also, just in terms of building that relationship that we have with these families.”

When the Almeda fire steamrolled through Ashland, Talent and Phoenix on Sept. 8 it displaced 696 students within the district from 484 households. Within 48 hours of the tragedy, del Rio said, good Samaritans were calling the district office asking how they could help and where to send money.

The district quickly set up the Phoenix-Talent School District Families Fire Relief Fund, created a web page and did what it could to promote it.

The effort quickly picked up steam. The Oregon School Boards Association threw its own resources at the emergency, sending a camera crew to Phoenix and Talent to shoot video and record stories of some of the victims which were turned into short segments (visit www.osba.org/rising to watch).

One of those videos featured Kerri Brooks, a special education teacher at Phoenix Elementary who lost her home in the fire. Brooks breaks down as she describes the desperate circumstances: “Being a homeless teacher teaching homeless students is really an impossible situation to be in.”

Another video features Mike Sandoval, a retired fire chief whose two children attend school in the district. A drone shot pans over a neighborhood reduced to cinders as Sandoval’s voiceover intones, “We don’t feel like we lost our home; we feel like our home was taken from us.”

Several others were posted, too, all compelling. The OSBA page links to the P-T relief fund as well as first-hand accounts written by each of the people featured in the 10 videos, all of which helps drive home the message that these communities — the Santiam Canyon and McKenzie school districts were also featured — need help. The hope was that the community would step up and contribute, but as the fire made national headlines it was clear that the campaign’s reach would extend far beyond the Rogue Valley.

“Big donations from Southern Oregon but also just from all throughout the country,” said del Rio, who was put in charge of the fund. “We’ve received letters from Connecticut, from Alaska, from Colorado, from Florida, Arizona and seven different countries, including Australia, the UK, the (United Arab Emirates). I mean, it’s really remarkable how the whole country has come together to support the effort to provide some relief after this tragedy.”

The task of determining how to disperse the money was handed to a 12-person committee made up of community members. Once that was hashed out, it fell on del Rio to execute the committee’s strategy.

“Basically, we can only control what we have control over,” del Rio said of the committee’s process. “So the thing that we know is that the children that were enrolled in our district at the time of the fires because we have data on that. At the beginning, we ran that through the county fire map, concerning the houses lost or highly impacted. Then we made contact with every single one of those families.”

The committee decided to set aside a flat payment amount per family, then add another donation on top of that per district child. So far, he said, the district has distributed checks totaling $1.2 million to 438 families — a donation he says will end up impacting 857 children in the district. That number comes to roughly $2,500 per family, but some received more and some less based on the number of students in the household.

Del Rio said the district has another $400,000 left to hand out and the committee, which has met twice already, will get together once more soon to work out the details of a final distribution. He also stressed that all the work that went into tracking down families and distributing the donations did not take away from fund. It required zero administrative costs, he said, emphasizing that “every penny that’s coming in is going to go out to the families.”

Pulling that off wasn’t easy, he added, but the staff came together to get it done. In some cases district staffers were reassigned from their usual jobs. In other cases, they worked weekends.

“We have a lot of bilingual staff who are super committed,” del Rio said. “We just made all those phone calls to every single one of those families. From every school, we said, OK, here are the families from your school, go ahead and start making phone calls.

“Making the phone calls with the map and the addresses that we had, calling the families, going ahead and getting the checks in the system, printing the checks. That’s many, many, many hours of work for the staff that just really wanted to make sure that we helped these families.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Kerri Brooks, a special education teacher at Phoenix Elementary who lost her home in the Almeda fire, is among those featured in a series of video stories produced by the Oregon School Boards Association to highlight the stories of those impacted by the Sept. 8 disaster. The web page for the stories provides a link for donations for the Phoenix-Talent School District Families Fire Relief Fund.{ } (osba.org/rising to watch screen image)