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School Affected by Valley Fire Thanks Volunteer

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For the students, teachers, and staff at tiny Cobb Mountain Elementary School in Northern California's Lake County, the last day of school is always bittersweet: The goodbyes can be long and heart-rending; but the coming summer months promise a well-deserved respite from classroom lessons, afterschool commitments, and homework assignments.

Emotionally, this year's last day, coming on May 27, was all of that — and so much more. That's because on that particular Friday, the school completed another chapter in its slow but steady recovery from the Valley Fire, the drought-fueled inferno that incinerated more than 75,000 acres in Lake, Sonoma, and Napa Counties last September.

Starting on September 12 and burning for two long weeks, the fire destroyed nearly 1,300 homes, including many in the hilltop community of Cobb. While the school there sustained only minor damage, more than a third of its students lost their homes.

"Because of all that we had been through, it was an especially reflective last day of classes this year," says Cobb Principal David Leonard, whose own home was lost in the blaze. "I found myself thinking of all of the people who helped us get back on our feet during the past nine months."

One of those people is Ellin Ruffner, an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer who traveled all the way from her home in Maine to support the elementary school last fall. "As this year has been coming to a close, I've been thinking about Ellin more and more," confesses Leonard, a first-year principal. "I've kept her Red Cross card on my desk the entire year; just seeing it has given me strength."

A retired licensed clinical social worker, Ruffner deployed to Lake County when local public health officials determined that they needed outside help in the Middletown School District. "The request for help came to the Red Cross, and we had to put out the call nationally because — given the severity of last fall's fire season in Northern California — our regional resources were maxed out," says Vicky Powell, Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Manager for the Silicon Valley Chapter. "Ellin was one of the mental health volunteers who answered our urgent call."

Part of a small Red Cross mental-health contingent that traveled to the district, Ruffner was given the assignment to focus on Cobb Elementary and its student body of about 150. The school was closed for repairs for several weeks after the fire was extinguished, forcing Cobb Elementary to relocate to another school site down the mountain in Middletown.

Ruffner, whose deployment lasted two weeks, says the school had just reopened back on its Cobb site when she arrived. "It was a pretty difficult situation for David and other members of the school. Not only was the home that David shared with his wife and their daughter destroyed, he had to care for a school where a lot of teachers and students were also suddenly homeless," she recalls.

"Because of the fire, some of the school's children were no longer living anywhere near Cobb, and the children who remained didn't know if the missing children were lost or dead," she adds. "And the school had just reopened right smack in the middle of all of that devastation. Everyone was trying their best to keep functioning — but there was just so much stress."

Slowly, but determinedly, Ruffner helped organize individual and group sessions and other activities designed to improve the emotional well-being of the elementary-school community. "It helped so much for the children to just be able to tell their personal stories and to get to a point where they could discuss the trauma that they had experienced," Leonard says. "Ellin was also able to calmly and clearly explain the various stages that we were going to go through in our struggle to recover from the devastation of the fires."

Leonard was so thankful for Ruffner's help that he sent her an email update in April, letting her know that the community is slowly beginning to rebuild. He also made it clear how much her help had meant to him personally. "Your wisdom and kindness have stayed with me this whole time — and for that I am truly grateful," he wrote.

But for Ruffner, it was another sentence in Leonard's message to her that really stood out: "Our kiddos have smiles on their faces," he reported.

In the school year's last weeks, Leonard shared one other email message with Ruffner — a link to a thank-you video the school's students produced for the many, many people who have come to their aid since last September. From her home in Maine, Ruffner teared up while watching it. "Those are my kids. They were talking about trees growing again and how they are beginning to feel better."

Better is exactly how Ruffner made the people at the school feel, Leonard says. "Ellin was such an important person in those first few weeks after the fire. She helped us understand that this was going to be our new normal for a while. But she also gave the children, their parents, and the staff confidence that — little by little — we could get through this," the principal adds. "Just seeing Ellin at our school everyday put me and everyone else a little more at ease."

PHOTO CAPTION: While Cobb Mountain Elementary School miraculously survived the devastating Valley Fire in Northern California last fall, a third of the students and many teachers and staff lost their homes when the two-week-long inferno roared through their tiny community. As the challenging school year was concluding recently at Cobb, school principal David Leonard (left) praised Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer Ellin Ruffner (right) for helping the students, parents, and staff get back on their feet.

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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