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Foundation of Support

OEA members impacted by devastating wildfires find relief through their union.

By Rylee Ahnen

The Friday going into Labor Day weekend, weather forecasters in Oregon were nervous. A hot and dry summer had resulted in several small wildfires springing to life across the state and the predictions for an unprecedented wind event had the potential to turn those small fires into destructive inferno. That’s exactly what happened. Coupled with low humidity, wind gusts reaching speeds as high as 40 miles per hour tore through the state – and the wildfires that had been smoldering for weeks quickly became a blaze that claimed at least nine lives, thousands of homes and physical structures, and over one million acres of land.

The wildfires were indiscriminate, upending the lives of tens of thousands of individuals who were forced to evacuate their homes in order to move to safer ground. As Oregon firefighters continue to battle the blazes and bring them more and more under control, many cities and towns are now faced with the monumental task of rebuilding their communities, and many OEA members and their students have been left wondering how they’re going to manage to return their lives to some sense of normalcy.

THE OEA FOUNDATION

As students and educators have struggled in the wake of the disaster, our union has come together to support members and students who need help the most. One resource that has served as a lifeline for our students is the OEA Foundation. Established in 1995 through the charitable contributions of OEA members, the foundation has offered financial support to students in need for 25 years. As the toll of the wildfires continued to mount, the OEA Foundation opened grant applications so members could apply for wildfire relief for their students. As of this article’s writing, the OEA Foundation has been able to award over $53,000 in fire-related grants to hundreds of Oregon students.

Foundation grants have been used to help students meet a wide range of needs as families cope with staggering losses as a result of the wildfires. After fleeing for their lives, some families returned to homes that had suffered extensive smoke damage or to find rotten food in their refrigerator. OEA Foundation grants were able to help those families begin the process of restocking their pantries. These grants have been especially important for students from families whose immigration status makes accessing government support difficult or impossible.

OEA Vice President Reed Scott-Schwalbach points to the special nature of the applications to support neurodiverse students. “For students on the autism spectrum, the quick nature of the evacuation has been particularly difficult,” said Scott-Schwalbach. “Familiar comfort items had to be abandoned, leaving students dealing with both a new environment and a lack of tools to help process the changes. OEA Foundation grants have been able to help those families replace those sensory items that are so critical for our students on the autism spectrum.”

As the toll of the wildfires continued to mount, the OEA Foundation opened grant applications so members could apply for wildfire relief for their students. As of this article’s writing, the OEA Foundation has been able to award over $53,000 in fire-related grants to hundreds of Oregon students.

OEA RELIEF FUND

Our union family has always made sure that we would be able to help one another during difficult times, and that’s why, decades ago, our members created the OEA Relief Fund. The OEA Relief Fund was established to support members during strikes, school closures and lockouts, and in the event of natural disasters. And now, after generations of member support, the Relief Fund is self-supporting and managed by a committee of OEA members. Over Labor Day weekend, as the Oregon wildfires began to grow in size and impact, the Relief Fund opened applications for all members who had experienced a financial hardship caused by the wildfires.

For Sheldon Lesire, an OEA member and special education teacher at Silver Crest Elementary in Silverton, wildfires came within miles of the elementary school and nearly all of the school’s students were placed under a level 3 evacuation order. As the fires moved closer and closer to Sheldon’s home he and his family were placed under a level 2 evacuation order, and the smoke from the nearby fires quickly began to blanket the air — dramatically impacting the air quality for the community.

As the air quality continued to decline, Lesire and his wife grew concerned for their daughter’s health, fearful that her past history with respiratory issues would become a problem for her if they remained in the area. The family made the decision to evacuate for several days, moving to an area further away from the fires where the air quality wouldn’t pose such a large concern. “We were just going to suck it up,” said Lesire about the unexpected cost. “It wasn’t going to be awesome, but we just felt like we had to do it.”

When OEA sent out applications for the Relief Fund grants, Lesire applied. “I did the application online; it took less than five minutes.” Within days, Lesire’s application was approved. “It was a huge, huge, weight off of our shoulders.” At the time of writing, the OEA Relief Fund had distributed $48,604.28 in grants to 94 member educators who had been impacted by the wildfires.

“It has been really nice to have our local association and OEA at large very much have our backs,” said Lesire. “Something like this Relief Fund, that’s huge. Everything’s a mess. It feels like everything is a mess and everything is broken. Not all of our online stuff works. This is hard for everyone — parents, teachers, students, everybody. But this is one tangible thing that OEA was able to take off of our plate. That’s huge, and it was very welcomed.”

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