Sonoma Valley youth recover from wildfires

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Last fall, Elizabeth Kolling left her family’s Kenwood home to start school as a freshman at Columbia University. After midnight Eastern time on Oct. 9, she got the text: “There’s a fire in Kenwood. Evacuate immediately.”

As the wildfire raged through her home town, the 18-year-old frantically texted and called her parents, but got no answer. Finally, 3,000 miles from the home that had been in her family for generations, she cried herself to sleep in her dorm room in New York.

Meanwhile, many of the approximately 4,500 youth in the Sonoma Valley were fleeing the fire, which started the night of Oct. 8 in the Pacific time zone. A total of 26 students in the school district lost their homes and the homes of nine suffered damage, with the total number of Valley homes lost currently standing at 407.

Happily, no Valley youth perished in the fire, but all the young people of the Valley, including Kolling, were affected in some way. Experts say the resilience of youth is on their side.

“Despite exposure to traumatic events, and any short-term distress, most children and adolescents will return to their normal level of functioning,” said Stefanie Smith, the chief clinical officer at Hanna Boys Center, a residential treatment center for at-risk youth, which features programs that focus on the lasting effects of childhood trauma.

Kolling is an example. Though her family home in Kenwood, a 4-square-mile district of about 4,000 residents, burned to the ground, she now says, “It was a tough fall, but I had a good community of friends. They helped me through it, and my family is stronger than ever.”

Kolling’s parents Kendra and Paul, and sister Alaina, 14, who were home at the time, survived the fire. (Her brother Liam, 20, was away at college.) Living in temporary quarters in Healdsburg, they plan to reconstruct their home and return to Kenwood.

When Kolling visited the property for the first time during school break in January, though the house was gone, “I didn’t feel at a loss because I was surrounded by my family,” she said.

Family and friends are important to all fire survivors for recovery, Smith said, but especially to young people.

“When we’re looking at a natural disaster, children and adolescents are looking toward their caregivers for clues on how to cope,” Smith said. “They are influenced by how their parents and caregivers are coping.”

As the one-year anniversary of the fire nears, Smith said, feelings that may have seemed resolved may return, or feelings that never went away may become more intense.

“It’s OK if it’s still coming up for you a year later,” Smith said.

While the majority of children and adolescents affected by a disaster will return to normal, there is a group that will not, Smith said. This depends on such things as whether the youth has other stressors, prior trauma, ongoing safety issues, and such things as racism or even immigration status, the latter two which might make access to resources difficult.

“There is a substantial minority of children that will develop ongoing psychological problems,” Smith said.

Those children hopefully will benefit from a recent grant to the Hanna Institute, the Hanna program charged with promoting outreach and education about childhood trauma. In June, the institute, which is part of the Boys Center, got a $650,000 grant from the San Francisco-based Tipping Point Foundation to train professionals in how to support residents including children who are still struggling with the impact of the wildfires.

The new grant will support a strategic collaborative of Sonoma Valley organizations. The institute plans to use the grant to train workers at Sonoma Valley organizations such as childrens’ homes, mental health centers and school sites, though not all their clients will be youth.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District responded to the crisis immediately. In October, right after the fires, counselors and other public school site personnel in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District attended training sessions through the Sonoma County Office of Education.

All staff got training on addressing the social-emotional needs of the 4,451 students in the district in 2017-18, as well as their families, and how to help students acknowledge and deal with trauma.

When Kolling recently visited the site of her former home, she said, “The oak tree that was next to my bedroom window was burned, but it’s still standing. Now it’s starting to put out green shoots at the base.

“When the new house is built, the tree will be outside my bedroom again,” she said. Like the 4,500 other youth in the Sonoma Valley, the college sophomore is rebuilding not only her home, but her life. “Time heals all wounds.”

Email Janis Mara at janis.mara@sonomanews.com

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