JUSD modeled empathy, unity, and service to community in late October when a pair of fires swept through Jurupa Valley, temporarily displacing scores of residents.
In a remarkable show of skill and compassion, dozens of students and educators stepped up to assist more than 300 local residents evacuated by the “Hill Fire" on Oct. 30 and the “46 Fire" on Oct. 31.
The result, in combination with great work by firefighters, first responders and others who assisted, was an emergency response that made the community proud.
“I have heard so many positive comments from elected officials and community members about your efforts," Board of Education President Robert Garcia wrote in a Nov. 5 letter addressed to the JUSD family. “And it makes me extremely proud to serve on the school board in this district with such great and caring people."
On. Oct. 30, district leaders rapidly turned the Patriot High gym into a Red Cross evacuation center and mobilized student and staff volunteers to run it from 10:30 a.m. to 7:45 p.m., when fire conditions improved. During that window, JUSD bus drivers pulled residents from the path of fire – including elderly patients at a local health care facility – and delivered them safely to PHS.
On Oct. 31, the PHS gym reopened to evacuees of the second fire at 2:30 a.m., providing sanctuary until residents were cleared to return home 12 hours later.
JUSD also made Patriot's fields available for Cal Fire helicopters to land, reload with water from fire trucks, and take off again to battle flames.
“Although ambulances were delivering patients who were being evacuated to our gym, Cal Fire helicopter operations were based on our campus, and Cal Fire fixed-wing aircraft were flying low overhead, it was a 'normal' school day and bell schedule for our Warrior students and staff," said Patriot Principal Damien Hernandez.
An appreciative email to a parent reflects the spirit of the collective volunteer support effort. Karina Becerra-Murillo, JUSD director of special education, wrote:
“Hi Mrs. Ramirez,Today during the evacuations from a local assisted living facility to Patriot High School I witnessed the actions of an amazing young man, Pedro. Many of the elderly people were upset, confused and distraught due to the fires/evacuations. I watched Pedro comfort many of them and treat them as though they were his own grandparents.
You should be very proud of what a great young man you have raised! … We are very proud to call him a Jurupa student."
According to Pedro, a senior, “I helped out of instinct because I felt it was the right thing to do. I am proud of myself for doing the right thing. The community is stronger when people stick together during difficult times."
Pedro and other students assisted in many ways, including: helping senior citizens, many of whom could not walk, get into the gym; distributing water, blankets and supplies; and providing comfort to people in trauma.
Indeed, rising to the crisis helped Patriot students learn without limits:
Cynthia Cuccio, a teacher at Patriot, noted that many of the elderly evacuees were disabled. She praised the student-volunteers who supported them and said, “I was so proud of students for helping when others needed them most."
Among the PHS student groups that assisted:
JUSD bus drivers proved vital to the effort, as well.
Driver Miriam Harris said she and three other bus drivers volunteered to help as soon as word of the first fire spread.
“The decision to step up and serve the community was an easy one," Ms. Harris said. “I have been a bus driver for 23 years and I serve children. I am also a parent and I understand the importance of keeping kids safe. Driving a bus is not a job – I love what I do!"
Still, with fire raging, the assignment proved challenging. Not only did the drivers struggle to reach evacuees because of thick traffic in the fire zone, but some of the children they picked up were tense and frightened.
“One kid screamed, 'My house! My house!'" Ms. Harris said. “I spoke softly to the student, asking if his mom and dad were home. When he said that they weren't, I reassured him that everything in the house could be replaced. It is family that is most important and I told him that they were all safe."
Such empathy, unity, and service to community – demonstrated district-wide – impressed Superintendent Elliott Duchon.
“I'm so proud of our JUSD family," Mr. Duchon wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to educators and students. “I have never seen more evidence of caring people and better service … In this crisis situation, everyone pulled together to ensure the safety and comfort of our students, parents, and community members."
For their part, students said that evacuees' need for care and comfort left an enduring impression.
According to Harley: “Two students helped an elderly woman into the gym. I stayed behind to help her husband. I will always remember when he said to me, 'I hope I have a home to go home to.'"