Many family keepsakes were lost when forest fires swept through Northern California,
but Herff Jones assembled a team to do what we do best.
You don’t have to be local to imagine flames swallowing the hillsides surrounding Paradise, California, in the fall of 2018.
The state’s most destructive and deadliest wildfire — and the world’s most expensive natural disaster that year — headlined American news for more than two weeks.
A drought, strong November winds and a faulty electric transmission line combined to claim 85 lives, more than 150,000 acres and nearly 20,000 structures in small towns near San Francisco. It took firefighters 17 days to contain the blazes, which displaced more than 50,000 people.
Although Paradise High School remained standing and undamaged, most families were relocated outside the area. When classes resumed at a temporary site in nearby Chico the following January, roughly 700 students showed up. More than 1,000 had been enrolled that fall. The numbers spoke volumes: The school and community meant so much to the students that they did whatever it took to be back with their classmates as soon as possible.
Nothing was normal for community members who lost everything.
Paradise’s population dropped by nearly 90 percent. Crews reported that the debris there outweighed the remains when New York’s 110-story Twin Towers crumbled in 2001.
Herff Jones rep Michelle HilQuist grew up about 20 minutes from Paradise and has been “the yearbook lady” to area schools for nearly a decade. Within days, she started receiving calls.
“They were asking about yearbooks and, like always, I had to say we did not have extra copies on hand.”
“I had calls from other schools too (not just Paradise), but I was able to handle most of those requests on a one-off basis because the schools still had books they could sell to people who lost their own copies,” HilQuist said. “To me, it made sense to concentrate on the area where the demand would be the greatest.”
Taking part in the recovery
As months passed, pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who also grew up nearby, co-founded a recovery fund and donated the first $1 million. Paradise High School requested a grant and was approved to provide 2019 yearbooks to all students. HilQuist wrote another proposal seeking funds to help cover the cost of reprinting previous volumes.
“We make yearbooks, so I started working on a plan to replace books that had been lost in the fire. I knew it was possible, but I wasn’t sure who needed to give the go-ahead to make it happen,” HilQuist explained.
After hearing several emotional speeches from corporate executives in a January meeting, HilQuist had all the answers she needed. The message — partner with schools to elevate the student experience — was loud and clear, telling her where to set her sights. As she spoke to others, enthusiasm for the idea spread quickly.
Herff Jones could — and would — make it happen.
VP of Operations Doug McWilliams deemed the idea a “no-brainer” and plant leadership in Kansas City was on board from the start. Plant Service Manager Natalie Jones stepped up to coordinate efforts.
“We agreed from the beginning that this was the most important thing we’d ever had the opportunity to do. We were definitely going to figure out how to make it happen,” Jones said.
Herff’s passion project
After the busy spring delivery season, the pace in the plant changes. While the summer and fall delivery books are in production, there’s capacity for additional projects.
The proposed schedule for the project included taking orders through the end of August and delivering the first wave of books at a distribution event in late October. About half of the 800 books ordered, Jones noted, were to be shipped directly to their owners because so many families had been relocated outside of Paradise.
Some project aspects had obvious solutions. The plant had archived files from recent years, so reprinting those books would be easy — and the plant could use the actual cover files for those most recent books.
Luckily, the high school building had survived the fires unscathed. That meant archival copies were available to be scanned, so HilQuist collected volumes from 2000–2014 and sent them off to the plant.
In order to get the word out, HilQuist and others contacted area media outlets, did lots of interviews and used social media to make ordering information available.
“It was great,” she remembered. “I was in FedEx, getting ready to ship the books to the plant and the guy at the counter asked if these were the books for the reprint. He’d heard about it and commented on how cool he thought it was.”
“He was so careful with the books as he packed them for shipping,” she said. “Then he tapped box and said, ‘I’m in here.’ He was a Paradise kid.”
That care continued once the books arrived in Kansas City.
“We definitely understood the value of the yearbooks we were working with,” explained Deb Salas, Herff Jones’ KC imaging lead. “It weighed heavily on us that we were scanning what might be the last copy of each book in existence. Obviously, we wanted the scans to be the best they could be and we knew how careful we had to be with those only copies.
We actually scanned the books wearing white gloves.”
Taking as many as four days per volume, the scans took weeks, and Salas and others helping with the project often found themselves re-scanning for impact. Everyone took the utmost care, Salas said.
“We do that every day, but — in this case — there was the possibility the replacements could be even better than the originals … and we knew they’d mean so much more.”
The whole process was absolutely heart-warming, according to Salas.
“People tend to keep their high school yearbooks, and you think you can always return to those memories by going back to your books. But that was no longer true for so many people in this one area. And it was incredible to help restore that privilege.”
During that same time frame, PHS yearbook adviser Stacie Martin, HilQuist and HJ plant cover artists collaborated on a single cover that could be modified by adding the year-date for the coverage year and each volume’s theme for the earlier books.
While people in California and all throughout the plant were dealing with the physical books themselves and production, the Yearbook Order Center was handling calls.
Sandy Genola, the order center lead, said the impact of the Paradise project was special in so many ways.
“Everyone knew it had been a big fire. But it was far away, and you don’t really think about — or comprehend — the magnitude until you have a connection to an event. We checked out the area on Google maps and realized the immensity of the damage. That made doing this even more worthy.”
Selling 19 books for the same school simultaneously ruled out online ordering, meaning every order involved a phone call.
“There were quite a few questions,” Genola said. “People wanted to clarify that they could, indeed, order multiple copies and multiple years. And that they could buy books they had not purchased years ago. Parents wondered about whether they would be able to replace their own books — because many were ordering books for their children in the first round. The callers were universally grateful, and they’d tell us about how much it meant to be able to have something so cherished back — because so much of what they lost simply cannot be replaced. Sometimes we just had to compose ourselves.”
Major differences, according to Genola, were that the calls were often longer than normal and were all about being able to say, “Yes. It is amazing and we are delighted to be able to do this for you.” With other accounts, she said, “We sometimes have to disappoint callers because their cut-off date has passed or the school has already sold out. We actually missed the Paradise calls after we closed orders.”
Reconnecting at YBK Day
The campus reopened as school began in mid-August. Like before, the school was “a community hub,” according to Martin. “And it’s even more so now,” she continued. “We understand we’re protecting the history of our school — and of Paradise.”
“Michelle was the person who believed from the start,” she said. “I felt I was the voice of reason. We saw so much generosity. Before I knew it, I found myself thinking, ‘This is happening.’ It was just huge — and it wouldn’t have happened without her.”
Finally, day of distribution arrived.
Less than a year after their lives were changed forever, alums came to campus to pick up their replacement yearbooks.
The event brought together families and friends. Former neighbors who had relocated to other communities reconnected as they claimed the volumes they’d waited for.
Teresa (Hess) Young, 1984 grad, was there to pick up books for her daughter, a 2010 graduate, whose yearbooks were lost when the family home burned.
“I always used my own yearbooks lots,” she said. “At least once a week, I’d see or think of someone and go look them up in my yearbook. So I have touched my books a lot through the years. It meant so much that I could replace Crystal’s yearbooks for her. We are all so thankful for this — and I am really hoping I will be able to replace my own yearbooks at some point.”
Young and her husband now live in another small town just five miles from Paradise, but they dream of returning one day. More than a year later, she says she still feels a range of intense and fluctuating emotions and recalls their escape in vivid detail.
“Even before the fire,” she said. “Town had changed so much. Older books (like mine) provide such strong history of the school and the community. There are so many memories in those books. They mean everything.”
Bethany Mercer did not lose her home, but she lost all her yearbooks. A 2002 grad, she’s married and has a family of her own — and a house in Chico.
But her yearbooks were still in Paradise at her parents’ house for “safekeeping.”
Her parents have now moved hours north to Ashland, Oregon. Her friends who had remained in town lost their homes as well, so she feels lucky on many counts.
“It’s different for us because we still have our home, but we lost lots of things. I have a pretty strong sense of community because I am tight with many of my friends from high school — so it’s huge to be able to have my yearbooks back.”
Mercer’s 6-year-old daughter went along to pick up her mom’s yearbooks.
“We talked about the importance of good friends and memories and having a history of your life that school year,” she recounted. “We sat together and looked at the books and talked for quite a while.”
Cindy Hopkins attended distribution in October to take event photos. She is a former award-winning yearbook adviser who lives and teaches in nearby Chico, but lived in Paradise as a child.
“I wasn’t sure at first,” she said, “but I’m glad I went. It was great to see so many people who were so thankful to have a powerful piece of the past back. They were overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the generosity that made this possible.”
She described her interactions.
“Every person has a different fire experience story — and there was quite a bit of sharing.”
Some people, she said, did not stay and talk to others. “I can totally understand that, too,” she said. “The whole thing has been so public and so documented that a little normalcy seems special.”
Lauren Barrera-Green, another photographer and former area adviser who now teaches at the same school as Hopkins, accompanied her that day.
“It was my only my third time back to Paradise since the fire,” she said, “but it still just knocked the breath out of me. I’d been to the school a lot; we competed there when I was in high school. When we pulled in, across the street from ruins and saw the school — and that huge, perfect redwood tree — still standing strong, I felt such a massive sense of community.”
While her own eight-day evacuation had been “advised” rather than “mandatory,” the proximity of the fire, the smoke and the ash encouraged her family to stay with her parents to ensure safety.
“Everyone’s experience was different, so it makes sense that their reactions are, too,” Barrera-Green said. “Some people were more open to sharing (and being photographed) and others just weren’t ready. It was hard for all of us.”
Their drive home was quiet.
“We heard so many stories and saw so much raw emotion that we sort of drove home in silence. We were done, but it was a good afternoon,” Hopkins said. “I was emotionally drained,” added Barrera-Green. “I really was just ‘talked out.’”
The value of yearbooks became even more apparent to the Paradise community as a whole, those who got books replaced, the advisers there to support and photograph the event and the many people from Herff Jones who were involved.
“This whole process has made us understand even more how much our work means to people,” Natalie Jones explained. “Interest in the community is still high and we’ll be scanning and reprinting more books again this summer. Plus, it really emphasizes the value of archiving files. This project and changing digital technologies have encouraged us to think about how we can protect our customers’ yearbooks going forward.”