Benefield: Casa Grande High School athletes step up to comfort Sonoma County fire evacuees

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The boy was maybe three or four. The girl, probably 10.

And next to them, two burly high school boys were on bended knee helping set up toys and sleeping gear.

“Everything they had was sitting in that corner,” Casa Grande football coach Denis Brunk said of the family of four that walked into the evacuation shelter set up on campus Monday night.

“To see two of my boys, two of my football players, sitting there making their corner of the room their home?”

Brunk had to pause to let the catch in his throat pass.

“That’s what they were doing. It was amazing,” he said.

It was a small scene that played out in many ways throughout the day Monday and into Tuesday morning on the Casa Grande campus in Petaluma, in the wake of the deadly fires that have ravaged thousands of acres in the North Bay, destroyed countless homes and shuttered schools for three days.

Principal Eric Backman got the call that his school would be used as an evacuation center and immediately put the word out to staff and parents. They responded en masse. A signup list was 288 names deep.

Backman didn’t put out a call for students to come. But they came anyway.

“I told many of my colleagues today that in the 22 years I have been in education, I saw more selfless, inspiring acts from teenagers than I have ever seen,” Backman said. “It was really incredible.”

Team texts started buzzing among athletes. There was no school, no practice, but there were things teammates could do together. There was work to be done.

Like football players working deep into the night, doing the simple but necessary job of helping elderly and infirm patients to the bathroom. Or sitting with dementia patients to give them quiet company in the unfolding chaos.

“We were side by side with medical staff,” Brunk said. “It was incredible to me. I saw a nurse roll in and say ‘I’m from Santa Rosa Memorial and I heard you need help.’ Another guy said, ‘I work in a convalescent facility and I’m here to help.’ We are working here with other professionals and we are their labor.”

Paige Hulsman saw that generosity, too. Hulsman runs cross country for the Gauchos and spent her morning at Petaluma Valley Hospital, watching over the young children of doctors and nurses who answered the call to work in the middle of the night, without securing child care options.

“Just setting foot in the hospital, I was so moved that people were coming from different towns to help the families who had lost their homes,” she said.

So when a team text went out calling for athletes to show up and pitch in on campus, she did it again, helping to turn the gym, library and multi-use buildings into dormitories, quiet rooms and a cafeteria.

Dozens of student-athletes showed up on campus, spurred by team texts and coach requests.

“There was no hesitation,” Brunk said. “I instantly had texts saying, ‘Coach, I’m on my way.’”

“That was the biggest thing,” boys basketball coach Jake Lee said. “Instead of hoping someone goes and does something to help people, you can jump in and do something yourself.”

So athletes lugged and toted bedding and crates of water across the campus as the number of those showing up grew as the evening wore on.

“It was cross country kids, golf, tennis — all of our athletes coming together,” athletic director Rick O’Brien said. “What was best was, it was ‘How can we help?’ Whatever it was, they did without exception.”

Soon, evacuees were sleeping in the library. Meals for 250 people were donated by Lombardi’s in Petaluma. Swirl Time in Rohnert Park donated desert.

It was a temporary reprieve in the most chaotic of situations.

The entire shelter has now been moved to the Cavanaugh Recreation Center on the west side of Petaluma. But for one night, it was the world to many of the evacuees.

At some point, it all became overwhelming for Hulsman. She let herself cry.

“It was so moving,” she said. “So many people were helping out but so many people lost their homes. It was kind of hard to see. Babies were there and they had to be changed out in the open, they had to be fed.”

Some people showed up without shoes. Some were clearly shellshocked from what they had just been through — and the dawning reality of the devastation they now face.

“People showed up in a very vulnerable state,” Backman said. “It was mostly families. We had a lot of young families here.”

So in addition to unloading and setting up cots, helping people to the bathroom, the student-athletes played. There were games at the ready for kids, there were books to read. There was normalcy to reach for.

“It was a monumental task taken on by our administrative staff,” O’Brien said.

And the Casa community, including student-athletes, answered the call.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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