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Manzanita Project symbolizes Phoenix, Talent resilience

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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSonia Mendez, a Talent Elementary staff member, shares a story of hope Tuesday holding a picture of a plant surviving and growing at the edge of property of a reconstructed home.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePhilip Oje reads a sign placed along the Bear Creek Greenway near Blue Heron Park in Phoenix.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA manzanita tree sculpture created by Phoenix/Talent students was on display at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix Tuesday.

PHOENIX — Nothing grew in Sonia Mendez’ yard even months after the Almeda fire, largely due to a blazing summer and heavy rebuilding activities in the burn footprint. But one plant continues to produce ample fruit. Mendez, a Talent Elementary School staff member, said she hasn’t seen a healthier plant in her life.

The best part of the rebuild, she said, has been witnessing the resilience of one tomatillo plant thriving along her fence, grown from seeds gifted by her grandfather.

Mendez left town due to a death in the family Sept. 5, 2020, but her children and husband were home when the Almeda fire swallowed 2,600 structures in Talent and Phoenix three days later, including her house.

“I have been strong for my family, but when you get close to the year, this is where the obstacles of, ‘Can I keep going?’ come in,” Mendez said. “This plant has shown me so much about how strong we are and that even though there have been so many obstacles for this little plant, it can give fruit.”

At Blue Heron Park in Phoenix Tuesday, representatives from Phoenix-Talent schools unveiled the Manzanita Project, an effort bolstered by community partnerships to commemorate the resilience of those most affected by the Almeda fire.

Over the summer, Talent Middle School teacher Sandra Tringolo worked with her summer class of 11 fire-impacted students to create four interpretive signs recently installed along the Bear Creek Greenway — an invaluable healing process centered around the theme of resilience, Tringolo said.

“Students spent time reflecting on their own resilience, on community resilience and then on the resilience of the Greenway,” she said.

Jackson County Parks and local fire service staff taught students about the fire and restoration process. What the students learned, they transformed into interpretive signs in their own words and designs. Students emphasized the importance of bilingual interpretations, Tringolo said, and created the layout, including both Spanish and English.

“I know we’ve got a lot more work to do, but look what we’ve done so far,” said Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer at the unveiling Tuesday. “I think we’ve set a template and we’ve set a tempo for how we’re going to make this community come back even better than it was.”

Also for the project, students collaborated with a professional artist to create six sculptures of manzanita for placement on the Bear Creek Greenway, at Phoenix-Talent schools and as gifts to the McKenzie River and Santiam Canyon school districts, which were also heavily impacted by fire last year.

Jackson County staff installed the signs along the Bear Creek Greenway. Ashland Community Hospital Foundation donated $14,700 to the project for signs, metal for the sculptures and T-shirts for more than 500 students and staff. The foundation provided additional funds to staff summer school with nurses, to support students’ “physical and emotional wellbeing,” Tringolo said.

The idea of student-created metal sculptures fit right into Talent Maker City’s wheelhouse, and the nonprofit chose artist Rick Evans to lead the hands-on student art education component.

Evans worked with fire-impacted students over two weeks for 24 hours in total, teaching students how to weld and create the manzanita elements in metal. High school students created the sculpture stands.

Manzanita requires fire to germinate, and is revered in some Native American cultures as a symbol of rebirth — well suited as the project’s central visual feature, said Joe Zavala, Phoenix-Talent School District communications specialist.

“Teaching [students] to conquer the element that destroyed some of their homes is so empowering,” said Talent Maker City program director Allison French. “And then to have a skill that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives — the second that your brain figures out, ‘I can control metal,’ it changes how you look at the world and how you see the world and what kind of opportunities are open to you.”

Students collaborated on two poems to accompany the project’s physical elements. For one, students went on a “resilience tour” of Phoenix and Talent, to find evidence of community resilience in action, Tringolo said.

They reflected on the weeks immediately following the Almeda fire, when both towns were covered in signs with messages of encouragement and support — every phrase composing the poem is one such message, put together in an order the students felt captured community strength, she said.

“Together with Strength” was composed by TMS students Mia Brossard, Antonio Camargo, Lily Carrera-Williams, Abby Corona, Allen Garcia, Marley Patterson, Cesar Roman, Evelyn Silva, Joanna Siordia, Leonel Siordia and Elsie Valasquez.

Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Brent Barry credited Assistant Superintendent Tiffanie Lambert with leading the effort to support the district’s families during recovery and rebuilding from “minute one.”

“Even though we have a long way to go to recover and rebuild, there’s a good start,” Barry said. “We still have families that are suffering tremendous obstacles in order to get back to the community that loves them so much and the community they love.”

Still, marking the one-year anniversary of the fire this week, Phoenix and Talent school staff have not slowed down their efforts, nor a commitment to find new areas in which to serve, Barry said.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.