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’I’m very thankful...’

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Kassandra Skaff is a Phoenix High School Valedictorian.
Mail Tribune file photo Phoenix High School valedictorian Kassandra Skaff is shown a half-mile away from the school at the site of the Almeda fire in September. Skaff and her family lost their home.
She lost her house in the fire; now Kassandra Skaff is a Phoenix High valedictorian

Back in November of 2018, Phoenix High language arts teacher Kelly Fogg-Johnson hopped into a van stuffed with excited teenage girls and headed north down Interstate 5. The destination was Happy Valley Middle School in Portland, where middle grade fiction author Shannon Messenger was scheduled to talk about “Legacy,” the eighth installment of her popular “Keeper of the Lost Cities” series.

The girls couldn’t wait to meet one of their favorite authors, and Fogg-Johnson was happy to share driving duties with another teacher. She still remembers how thrilled the girls were, especially Bamba. Then a sophomore at PHS, Bamba – real name: Kassandra Skaff – was a voracious reader who ate up Messenger’s series about a 12-year-old girl who reads minds.

“She made a huge impression on me from the beginning,” Fogg-Johnson said of Skaff. “She was polite and sweet and she was so excited about meeting this author.”

Skaff loved the trip, and one of the best things about it was the end, when Messenger signed Skaff’s copy of “Legacy,” the eighth book in the series. Three years later, Skaff and her friends still adore the series, and that book.

But now Skaff’s memory and perhaps a few cloud-saved photos are the only remnants from that trip, because like just about everything else she and her family owned, her home included, that signed copy of “Legacy” was taken by the Almeda fire on Sept. 8, 2020.

The fire that destroyed almost 2,500 homes, primarily in Talent and Phoenix, severely altered the course of Skaff’s senior year, but the headstrong three-sport athlete and former vice president of Phoenix’s Future Farmers of America chapter refused to let her academic standing suffer even after her family was forced to move into an RV in south Medford. That’s why on June 12, one of about 215 PHS students who lost her home in the fire will be celebrated on graduation day as one of the school’s five valedictorians. Through all the loss, the heartache and uncertainty, Skaff has somehow managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA.

It’s a remarkable achievement considering how drastically the fire changed her life and how long it has taken to recalibrate.

“Because I lived in my house my entire life – I had been in the same house, the same spot, had the same routine,” Skaff said, “and I kind of got thrown off-balance a little bit. And I feel like I’m just starting to get back into the rhythm of things.”

Skaff wasn’t all that worried on the day of the fire. She felt like she was in mild danger and that yes, something could happen, but probably wouldn’t. In fact, the only reason she bothered to grab anything at all was because her friends who lived nearby said they were packing. So Skaff grabbed a few keepsakes, most because, she said, “there wasn’t anything else to do.” One of the things she packed was a cedar box made by her grandpa. Now, it might be the most precious thing she owns. Afterward, she got in a car with her brother and together they left their house on Colver Road for the last time.

When did she realize the fire was serious? “When we were told my house burned down,” she said.

That was the next day. Soon, Skaff, her parents (Fred and Korina Skaff) and her grandma moved into a trailer on a piece of land between Phoenix and Medford. Skaff says her family was fortunate compared to many others. They had a piece of land on which to park their life during the rebuild. Others weren’t so lucky.

“I’m very thankful for what I have,” she said.

In the days and weeks after the fire Skaff, like many Phoenix High students, was just trying to get by. She and her family were able to grab some emergency supplies at Orchard Hill Elementary, where PHS teacher Carolena Campbell had set up one of the largest volunteer-run distribution points in the Rogue Valley.

That’s where Fogg-Johnson saw Skaff for the first time after the fire.

“I just gave her a huge hug, and even then she was trying to find the positive,” Fogg-Johnson said of Skaff. “She had lost everything and she was trying to find the positive. And that’s what it’s been like entire time. She still always tries to find the positive.

“She and a ton of other kids have amazed me with how resilient they are because honestly something like that probably would have knocked me on my behind for a really, really long time. And that’s not saying that she hasn’t struggled with it like any other student, but she does it with a smile.”

Fogg-Johnson says Skaff is one of the most amazing students she’s ever had and felt honored to be chosen to walk her across the stage on graduation day. There’s a lot more to Skaff than brain smarts, she says, before running off a list of things “Bamba” has done to make Phoenix High a better place – even Skaff herself is sketchy on the details of her nickname origin, but it probably started with her mom calling her “Sanda.”

Besides all the responsibilities that go along with participating in a sport in fall, winter and spring, Skaff also has donated her time to the school’s Kindness Club, represented PHS in the Brain Bowl and the State of Jefferson Scavenger Hunt, and has volunteered for My Future-My Choice, a trauma-informed sexual education program which tasks high school students with speaking to middle schoolers to help them navigate social pressures.

Skaff also has a quirky sense of humor. For a mock “promposal,” she drew an outline of a body on a sheet of cardboard, laid down on it and said, “I’m dying to go to prom with you.”

But mostly, says Fogg-Johnson, Skaff is just a great person whose impact will be felt at Phoenix High long after she leaves, which is why Fogg-Johnson was so flattered to be asked by Skaff to walk her across the stage and announce her name at graduation.

“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Fogg-Johnson said. “I’m going to try not to get choked up.”

After graduating, Skaff will start taking classes at Rogue Community College. She received the $4,000-per-year Medford Rogue Rotary Scholarship and certainly could have received more had she committed to a four-year school, but that’ll have to wait. For now, she says, it wouldn’t feel right leaving the area and her family – “I’m really close to my family” - before their house is rebuilt. It’ll go up on the same plot of land where their previous house once stood – the foundation should be ready soon.

“That’s really exciting,” she said, “because it’s going to feel good to have it start and then see some visual progress for the house.”

After school, Skaff is targeting a job in the health care field. Not in a hospital, though. She wants to help people in other ways, possibly as an occupational therapist.

“It just sounds like a job that I’d really enjoy,” she said, “figuring out what people need and what’s best for them in the specific difficultly that they’re having. It seems like an appealing job to me.”

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