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.’”