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Seeing the bigger picture

PHOENIX — Having already spent junior year in the throes of pandemic restrictions and school closures, the Phoenix High Class of 2021 would have been hard-pressed to imagine a more dismal way to kick off their senior year.

Until, that is, the Sept. 8 Almeda fire ravaged their town just as the school year began, leaving a third of the graduating class homeless and impacting nearly every student in the school in one way or another.

Add to the list of school sports and fun events being gone, those relegated to live in hotels, RVs or couches quickly gave up any notion of senior year milestones.

Phoenix High student manager Christie Sanders and student support staff Yaneth Garcia said students have been resilient, navigating the pandemic and wildfire debacle of the past two school years, but there’s a point where it all feels a little too heavy.

In hopes of finagling a few “rights of passage” for students, Sanders and Garcia, with help from a handful of local photographers, are rallying to ensure this year’s seniors don’t go without senior photos or graduation memorabilia.

Sanders said Central Point photographer Molly Bermea offered to facilitate photographers to volunteer to take photos of seniors, while Sanders and Garcia are working to get graduation supplies — such as caps and gowns — covered for seniors impacted by fires.

“It’s just been a little bit like a horror movie. At a point, it feels like, ‘OK, enough is enough.’ These kids have been through so much,” she said.

“Our minds have all been on trying to figure out just how to support our kids all the way through and still make a senior year for our seniors. COVID had already hit — everywhere — and we have students who are still displaced from the fires. Suddenly it’s March and the deadline for senior pictures is April 1.”

Sanders added, “We have about 50 seniors who lost their home — that’s a third of our senior class.”

Senior Daniela Rocha said she was touched by the gift of a senior photo session with local photographer Erica Ritchie. Rocha’s family of five lost their home in the Rogue Valley Mobile Village near Debby’s Diner.

“It was a lot of fun to get pictures done. After the whole fire thing, and we don’t have a place to live, it would have been really hard for me to find a photographer and figure out how to get pictures,” Rocha said.

“It’s definitely been a hard couple of years for everyone.”

Ritchie, a Phoenix High alum, said she immediately knew she wanted to help with the senior photo effort.

“How could anyone say no to helping these kids after all that has happened to them? I felt like I was the lucky one to be able to give something back and do something nice for them,” Ritchie said.

“They already missed out so much during their junior year. They gave up all their sports and had to do school remotely, then the fires.”

Having grown up in Phoenix, Ritchie said her childhood home did not burn, but she had friends who were less fortunate.

“To have grown up there and been in their shoes, ... it’s still hard to imagine what they’re feeling. To see places you played as a kid, gone. Nobody in my immediate family was impacted, so we were very lucky, but I have a friend who had three or four of her family members and a business all burned. In one family. You just feel so helpless when you try to think of ways to help in any real way.”

Central Point photographer Carmen Soares said she, too, was happy to help with the effort. Soares signed on to do photos for a half dozen students initially then signed on for more.

“The kids are all dealing with everything that has come their way, but it’s stressful for them. They’re already having to do school from home and not being able to be there. A lot of them are helping keep up with family situations like lost income, so it probably feels like their lives were just reduced to ashes,” Soares said.

“We have a list of about 35 students, and every one that I’ve done has shown up with such a good attitude and such gratitude to be able to get this done. This is something they deserve to be able to have done. It’s a normal, happy part of senior year.”

Sanders said the photo shoots have breathed hope and some happiness into the halls of Phoenix High School.

“It’s really making these kids feel like their senior year isn’t lost, like they matter and that maybe their hope isn’t lost that there’s a community out there that cares for them,” Sanders said.

“It’s just huge to have help making their senior year special in some small way. The way this has all come together is nothing short of amazing,” said Sanders.

“Every day we check the galleries to see who has had their photos done, and it’s really emotional for all of us here. ... Just to see the smiles on their faces again means everything.”

To donate toward Grad Night expenses for the Phoenix High Class of 2021, or toward printing of senior photos for students who lost their homes in the Almeda fire, see contact Sanders at Phoenix High, 541. 821.7135 or send an e-mail, christie.sanders@phoenix.k12.or.us

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Photographer Erica Ritchie captures Dany Rocha at the Medford Commons for her senior pictures. Rocha is graduating from Phoenix High School this year.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Photographer Erica Ritchie captures Dany Rocha at the Medford Commons for her senior pictures. Rocha is graduating from Phoenix High School this year.