As the state’s fire season begins to heat up, many communities north of East County are still suffering in the wake of last year’s devastating incidents.
However, a host of dedicated students from Oakley’s Freedom High School are doing their part to support the recovery efforts.
Over the past seven months, students collected close to $3,000 for the Brentwood- and Knightsen-based Hold Your Horses Livestock Emergency Evacuation Response Team, which is still assisting Paradise-area residents and animals in the aftermath of November’s 153,336-acre Camp Fire that killed 85 and destroyed 18,793 homes and buildings.
“The stories that were coming out of there then were horrible,” said Freedom health education teacher Kim Vardanega-Kent, who spearheaded the effort shortly after the fire. “I just wanted to do something. I threw them the idea and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
Fundraising events included selling hot chocolate, cotton candy and root beer floats. They also gathered separate donations from parents, students and teachers.
The funds, donated through Freedom’s Athletic Boosters Club to comply with fundraising regulations, went directly to the nonprofit response team that jumped into action during the third day of the over two-week-long fire, and has continued providing aid to people and animals in need, said Chantel Tieman, one of the organization’s founders.
The all-volunteer group initially assisted with animal evacuations before continuing to donate food, water, animal feed, medical supplies, trucks and fifth wheels to countless residents and animals, including cats, dogs, horses, goats, pigs, guinea pigs, turtles and cows.
“There are still people that are living in cars and tents; there are still animals being located,” Tieman said. “It’s going to take a really long time for the area to come back.”
Vardanega-Kent said her idea spread quickly, as the student-led effort received $800 in the first few days through an on-campus hot chocolate stand, and donations from generous staff, students and parents.
In all, the group participated in three on-campus food fairs, hosted two booths at a school-wideshowcase called Falcon Fest and reaped the benefits of various other food sales and donations.
Sophomore Hailey Ramirez stepped up to design posters for the food fairs and fundraisers. Freshman Kayla Emmons donated the use of a cotton candy machine and associated supplies, as well as helping out with sales, and at least seven other key student contributors volunteered in the effort.
“These kids rock,” Tieman said, “It’s absolutely amazing. We are very touched by what they did.”
The students said they were just responding to a need they identified.
“It feels good, you know, giving back to the community, and you get to understand how they must feel, and to help them out is just a great feeling,” said junior Jesus Gutierrez.
Emmons agreed, “It feels great knowing I am helping people and animals who have lost everything. I feel like every person that helps out by donating or volunteering is changing a life of a fire victim.”
Now that the first $3,000 is behind them, the high school group shows no signs of slowing down.
Vardanega-Kent said she’s hopeful the group can become an official on-campus club next school year.
“It feels wonderful to know that we are doing good in the world, especially for animals,” said student Akila James.
The Hold Your Horses Emergency Evacuation Response Team is still seeking donations for their continuous work around Contra Costa County and the state.
To donate or for more information on the response organization, visit holdyourhorsesevac.com.