Paradise High School graduates return to campus; lay to rest Camp Fire pain

220 graduates speak of strength, unity

  • Paradise High graduates await their diplomas Thursday at Om Wraith Field in Paradise. Much of the student population, faculty and staff were displaced by the deadly Camp Fire in 2018, and students attended school in Oroville. Despite being displaced by the deadly Camp Fire in November, the school graduated 220 student in 2019 with a record seven valedictorians and two salutorians. About 80 percent of the graduates are planning on going to college. (Rick Silva — Paradise Post)

  • Bob Wilson speaks at the Paradise High graduation Thursday at Om Wraith Field in Paradise. After the Camp Fire, Miller gave $1,000 to every student in the Paradise Unified School District. (Rick Silva — Paradise Post)

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PARADISE — The 220 graduates in the Paradise High School Class of 2019 returned to their campus on the ridge Thursday night to celebrate a new beginning, seven months after the Camp Fire upended their lives.

Most of them are heading to college next year. Many of the classmates they started the year with have already moved away. But those who remained wanted to bring the community together in one of the only places mostly spared by the flames: Om Wraith Field.

“For me it means a new beginning, and laying to rest all of what’s happened this year,” said Sarah Peters, a graduate heading to San Francisco State University to study anthropology. “I’m so glad I can start over where it all began, with all my friends.”

She gestured to the halls and classrooms of the campus, which had been cleared and repainted with the help of Comcast last month. Employees also carved a new bobcat statue for the school.

“Being here, it almost feels like it never happened,” she added.

The tight-knit class promoted a message of unity and strength during the ceremony.

The fire forced the students to relocate to makeshift classrooms in a warehouse near the Chico Municipal Airport, nicknamed “the Fortress.” Nathan Daley, a valedictorian and student of the year who is also a yo-yo champion, told the assembly, to cheers, that “it worked, and we made it work in style.”

”We didn’t just crawl across the finish line bloody and broken, we exploded through it and exceeded all expectations,” he added.

An outpouring of donations and grants has covered everything from new school gear to yearbooks to prom makeovers.

“We just appreciate all the help so much,” said Cesar Florez Rivera, a graduate heading to Butte College. He missed out on his senior football season but said he would cherish the strong bonds he built with his teammates.

The achievements of the graduating class, which Principal Loren Lighthall said include beauty queens, rodeo champions and the only National Merit scholar in Northern California, would be remarkable any year. Eight of the 17 sports teams won league championships. The class had seven valedictorians and two salutatorians, a record.

Elected officials including Rep. Doug LaMalfa and state Sen. Jim Nielsen and media crews crowded the Om Wraith field bleachers to applaud the graduates. Bob Wilson, the San Diego-area businessman who gave each student at Paradise High $1,000, received a rock star standing ovation during his address.

So did Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who told the graduates they were the “first generation of Paradise High School graduates to rise from the ashes of what life was and take a bold step forward into a new and uncertain future.”

The ceremony stayed true to unique Paradise traditions: the graduates did funny handshakes, threw confetti and even ate pizza as they entered the field.

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